The jungle of the misty Virunga volcano mountains in central Africa is so dense that even the raindrops falling in rain season do not reach the muddy ground. At night it gets freezing cold, and snow lies on the top of the highest volcano. And as if nature wasn’t already hard enough, the border region of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda is shaken by crises and wars. These volcanoes are the home of mountain gorillas.
Mountain gorillas live in family groups of one dominant older male, the silverback, and multiple adult females and their offspring. A mature male mountain gorilla – with his enormous chest and long arms – may weigh 200 kilograms and be two meters tall.
Gorilla groups move in a 20-square-kilometer home range and spend the day eating dozens of kilograms of leaves, shoots, roots, fruit, and tree bark. When night falls, mountain gorillas nest in leaves, and baby gorillas snuggle into the long fur hair of their mothers.
Through the Jungle to the Mountain Gorillas
We left an hour before dawn. The Landcruiser carried us to the base of Mount Visoke in Rwanda that was still covered in mist. Two armed guards joined us when our guides began the ascent from a small village with tin-roofed huts. The scent of eucalyptus wood fires was in the air. A stone wall preventing buffaloes and elephants from entering the farmer’s fields marked the edge of the bamboo jungle at the border to the Congo.
Once inside the forest, we struggled through the dense vegetation in dim light and humid air. The track of mud made climbing hard and soon sweat dripped from our faces. After about two hours, our guides slowed down. We joined the group of locals who had scouted the mountain gorillas nest the day before.
At first, we just heard the mountain gorillas behind the trees. Then suddenly, the silverback named Agashya – Kinyarwanda for ‘special’ – appeared on a clearing just a few meters away from us. Doing justice to his reputation, he went on to chew on a branch with leaves in the most laid-back way. Agashya is the promiscuous boss of a mountain gorillas family with more than a dozen adult females – which possibly explains his relaxed character.
A juvenile male eagerly tried to impress a gorilla lady who soon retreated to the bamboo treetop, only to be followed by him – which made the tree, and the mountain gorillas, fall to the ground just missing us by a hair’s breadth.
It started to rain and the group followed the silverback through the forest to a nearby meadow. We pursued them and discovered a mother gorilla carrying her baby on her back and feeding grass to it with one hand. While the other gorillas continued to eat, Agashya sat down and picked a flower. When we left the group, he was still looking at the bloom and letting the raindrops fall on his fur.
The National Parks: Home of Mountain Gorillas
Mountain gorillas live in three National Parks in the Virunga mountains of Central Africa: Mgahinga in Uganda, Volcanoes in Rwanda, and Virunga in the Congo. In addition, there is another population in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The estimated number of mountain gorillas living on Earth is around 950.
The North Kivu region comprising the Virunga National Park in Congo is enduring recurrent unrest. The mountain gorillas are not only threatened by poachers setting up traps and hunting for infant animals to sell them illegally. Wars and rebels terrorizing the region have led to habitat loss when refugees arriving after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda expanded settlements. The demands for charcoal as cooking fuel causes massive deforestation. Charcoal trade is lucrative source of profit among the armed groups in the region.
The Virunga National Park is Africa’s oldest national park, founded in 1925 by King Albert I of Belgium, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But nevertheless, oil companies plan to explore the Virunga region for oil. Whereas Total has given up plans after protests by conservation groups, British oil company Soco insists after being given a concession by DR Congo’s government – although Congolese law forbids such activities in National Parks.
The director of the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Emmanuel de Merode, intents the Virunga Park to be the motor for the whole region, attracting tourists and boosting the economy – allowing to build schools, clinics, and roads. De Merode opposes all oil exploration in the park. In April 2014, he was shot and severely wounded in an ambush. More than 140 rangers trying to protect the mountain gorillas have been killed in the past ten years.
When Diane Fossey worked in the Volcans national park in 1967, there were fewer than three hundred mountain gorillas. The last census in 2010 estimated the number of gorillas at 480. Mountain gorillas are still an endangered species.
The Discovery of the Mountain Gorillas
The discovery of the mountain gorilla species goes back to Friedrich Robert von Beringe, a German army officer of the Prussian Cavalry who volunteered for the German East Africa Protectorate Force.
In 1902, when Rwanda was a German colony, von Beringe visited King Yuhi Musinga of Rwanda. Together with the physician Dr. Engeland he then proceeded to climb Mount Sabinyo, one of the extinct volcanoes of the Virunga mountains.
In his diary von Beringe wrote: “On October 17, we left our basecamp on the saddle and took with us a tent, eight water canisters, five Askari, and porters as necessary.”
From the camp in an altitude of 2500 meters the expedition climbed through the dense bamboo forest to a rocky ridge where Captain von Beringe set up his tent. The Askari (local soldiers serving in the armies of colonial powers) and porters found shelter in a cave. It was freezingly cold.
“From our camp we caught sight of a troop of big black apes trying to climb the summit of the volcano. We succeeded in hunting down two big animals, and with loud banging they fell into a crater ravine towards the northeast.”
After arduous retrieving of one the apes, Captain von Beringe took a photo and sent the remains to the Zoological Museum in Berlin. The discovery was later described as a new subspecies of gorilla and named after von Beringe: Gorilla beringei, mountain gorilla.