Gentle jungle giants

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 January, 2011, 12:00am

Last Sunday was Dian Fossey's birthday. Fossey spent 18 years learning all she could about gorillas in Rwanda. Her story was made into the movie Gorillas in the Mist.

Fossey was murdered in 1985. But her work still goes on today.


One of the great apes, gorillas are primates. They live in Africa's jungles, and are quiet and shy animals.

They have very long arms - longer than their legs - a short, bulky body and a wide chest. They usually walk on all fours, curling their knuckles under their hands. Male gorillas are much bigger than females.

Gorillas live in social groups called troops. The groups are led by a strong male. They eat plants and make baskets to sleep in.

King Kong

The movie King Kong features a giant gorilla. The film gave these apes a bad name as it portrayed them as scary and aggressive.

The leader of a troop is called the silverback, because silver hairs grow on his back. This hair change only takes pace when he's 12 years old. He's like the grandfather of the group, making decisions and sorting out fights. He will also fight off other males who want to be the leader. By the time the gorilla is that old, he has a set of huge teeth and can look quite frightening.

Nearly human

Next to chimpanzees, gorillas are our closest relatives. They can share as much as 99 per cent of our DNA. They are very clever and often use tools to make their lives easier. Babies spend up to four years with their mothers. If they are orphaned, the silverback will look after them.


Sadly, because of war, being hunted for bushmeat or babies being sold as pets, gorillas are endangered. To make matters worse, they can also be killed by human diseases. Almost the whole population of the Democratic Republic of Congo was wiped out in 2004 by the ebola virus.

Rwanda is trying to protect its gorilla population. It lets tourists get up close to watch wild groups.

Now do this

1 The leader of a troop of gorillas is called ...

a. the blackback

b. King Kong

c. the silverback

2 Gorillas are found ...

a. only in Africa

b. in Africa and Asia

c. in South America

3 Who looks after orphan gorillas?

a. the government

b. other mothers

c. the silverback

Answers: 1. c, 2. a, 3. c