Mountain Gorillas & Photography
How photography and other imagery have played a role in the (careful) recovery of this endangered species By Regina Muller
Mountain gorillas are among the most endangered species in the world. Today, their natural habitat is limited to two protected areas in Africa: Bwindi National Park of Uganda and the Virungas Mountain Region which spreads across the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda. There are approximately 300 individual gorillas living in each of the populations, separated by a mere 20 miles. The mountain gorilla has a very limited number of predators, so why is this large, powerful and intelligent species facing the brink of extinction?
Since the beginning of time, there has always been something about a beautiful and powerful wild animal that compels man to murder it for pride and glory. Mountain gorillas are a prime example of this reckless and violent exploitation. In the early 20th century, explorers from Europe and North America developed an intense interest in African primates. Mountain gorillas were killed by hunters to have as trophies in their stuffed collection of dead and exotic animals. Gorilla heads and hands were sold as souvenirs to tourists. In the first 25 years of 1900, over 50 mountain gorillas were killed, leaving them dangling perilously on the edge of extinction.
Mountain gorillas live in countries with some of the highest human population densities in the world. In order for the people to thrive and grow enough crops, something had to give- and that give came from mountain gorilla territory. Throughout 1900, wild animals have faced a massive loss of land due to agriculture. Miles of forest have been cut down for farming. Plowing fields and farms run directly into land inhabited by gorillas.
How Visual Imagery Made a Positive Change
In 2007, while visiting Virunga National Park, a traveling photographer captured brutal images of a 500 pound mountain gorilla, dead, horrifically strapped to a massive wooden stretcher and being carried out of the forest. The series he took was published in Newsweek, along with a story describing the mountain gorilla’s degrading standards of life due to poaching and human encroachment on habitat. The story sparked a fire in wildlife conservationists and outrage among animal lovers. Three months after it was published, nine African countries signed legal contracts to help protect the remaining gorillas living in the Congo.
This was not a case of one singular photographer trying to make a social change. Many others, including primatologist Diane Fossey, attempted to dispel the myth of gorillas being violent man-killers. Fossey went so far as to live alongside mountain gorillas in Rwanda, learning about their behaviors and family dynamic. Her photographs showed a human side to gorillas the world never saw before, and encouraged others to want to understand and observe them.
Conservation photography and shocking imagery helped save the mountain gorilla from extinction. The Mountain Gorilla Project, started in 1970, brings non-exploitative tourism to mountain gorilla habitats and promotes conservation of the mountain landscape. The program is one of wildlife conservation’s greatest success stories; the measures taken ended the population’s decline, and today they remain on the road to recovery.