Do Gorillas Climb Trees?

gorilla climbing a tree

Any primate lover would be interested in knowing key aspects of primates’ lives. One of the frequently-asked-questions about the Giant Apes (gorillas) is whether they climb trees or not. The answer is yes and no, as you will find out in this article. One thing you need to know is that gorillas are generally “Terrestrial” and not “Arboreal” animals, meaning they live primarily on the ground in contrast to the latter that live primarily in trees.

Of the Great Apes (excluding humans), gorillas spend the least time on trees (only about five to twenty percent of the day), followed by the common chimpanzee that spend about 47 to 61% of the day away from the ground while the extraordinary Orangutans spend almost all their time (in fact 10%) on trees. Even for the little time gorillas climb trees, it is mainly to play (applicable to infants) or to harvest fruits (as long as the tree branch can handle their weight).

When climbing trees, these Giant Apes hold onto tree branches and smaller trunks with hands and feet. Additionally, it is done quadrupedally (or on all the four limbs) and rarely brachiate (swinging from one tree branch to another). Given their massive weight, it is the infant gorillas that tend to climb trees and even play more often on trees than on the ground. Of the two gorilla species-western and Eastern gorillas, adults of the latter hardly climb into trees, owing to their heavy weight ranging from 100 to 220 kilograms. Besides their weight, there are few tree species that are befitting for nest building in their natural habitat in addition to lacking fruiting trees.

Interestingly, the western gorillas spend substantial time on trees, even as adults because of their lighter weight in addition to having numerous fruiting trees in their natural habitats. For all gorilla species, the silverbacks prefer moving on the ground because of their weight although will attempt climbing high into fruiting trees that can handle their heavy weight. However, some of these Giant Apes that have blindly attempted tree climbing without considering weight have ended up losing their lives.

Some of the silverbacks that have been victims to this unfortunate predicament include Ndahura, renowned 18-year old dominant silverback of Bwindi’s Bitukura Gorilla Group (in Ruhija sector) who fell over 50 meters from a tree branch on 18th December 2016 while trying to pick Chrysophyllum fruits. The weak tree branch broke due to his heavy weight and to make matters worse, the branch also fell on him. It is said that after the broken tree branch was removed from his evidently injured body, he tried sitting up but failed and he passed away about half an hour later. Post-mortem examination that was conducted on him showed that he had died from “massive trauma” with numerous fractures on the left femur, with over bleeding in most of his body organs and dislocation of shoulders as well as his neck bones.

Three years before Ndahura’s death, the 30-year old silverback Ruhamuka of Bwindi’s Kahungye (within Rushaga sector) lost his dear life after falling from a tree. He fell so bad that even sustained sharp head and brain injuries which led to mouse and nose bleeding hence dying there and then.

Where to see the extraordinary Gorillas in Africa

The western lowland gorillas boast of the World’s highest population at about 100,000 to 250,000 individuals in Gabon, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Angola and Central African Republic among others.

For the Eastern lowland gorillas, there are about 3000-5000 of them living in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Mountain gorillas are about 1063 in number and found in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.

The Cross River Gorillas have the smallest population with about 250 to 300 individuals in Nigeria and Cameroon.