Dawn of Gorilla Tracking as a Tourism Activity

While there were sporadic non-scientific expeditions to mountain gorillas before, real tourism began with the arrival of Walter Baumgartel. Baumgartel was a German who had lived in South Africa, helped the British with reconnaissance photography during World War II, and eventually found an enticing ad in London: they were looking for somebody interested in a hotel job in Tanzania. From there Baumgartel travelled much further towards the centre of the African continent, up to Kisoro.

In 1955 he became the sole proprietor of Travellers Rest Hotel and began to offer gorilla tracking to his guests. He built a small camp on the saddle between Mts. Muhavura and Gahinga; he was genuinely interested in the gorillas and attempted to involve the international science community.

Walter Baumgartel in front of Travellers Rest Hotel; photo from hotel archives

However, the gorillas’ elusiveness was a problem. Baumgartel tried to habituate the gorillas by offering them various foods but all his attempts were unsuccessful; though this led to later successful tracking methods using Batwa guides. Eventually some groups did get habituated, more by accident than design. Baumgartel’s main guide was a Hutu named Rueben (Roveni) Rwanzagire of Nyarusiza, a mountain guide.

Baumgartel’s hotel became a mecca for visiting biologists from all over the world; the guest register has all the top names in the field from that time. These included Sir Julian and Lady Huxley who had visited the area once before in 1929 and walked from Kabale to Kabara, via Rutshuru, to visit Akeley’s grave. Robert Ardrey, dramatist, actor and evolutionist, who wrote a number of controversial books on human origins and evolution, visited to gain an understanding of the links between primate and human behaviour. Niels Bolwig, Witwatersrand University, was the first to study gorilla nest building.

There were some less than serious researchers. In his book “Up Among the Mountain Gorillas” Baumgartel tells of one who suggested tracking from a balloon, observation posts and tying cow bells around gorillas’ necks, though he declined to attach the bells himself.

Lord of the Forest

In 1950, Baumgartel recorded his first sight of Saza Chief, a mature silverback who led a group of two wives and two children:

There he stood, the black colossus, the primeval monster, the personification of brute force. His back was silver white, his chest and shoulders immense. He turned his massive head sharply to the left and the right, then looked me straight in the eye. His eyes were bloodshot and his wrath tremendous.

There he stood, the Lord of the Forest, erect in his full height, a giant of over six feet, raising his long arms. Each hand clutched a tree and shook it in savage fury. He watched our response. But the spell was broken, We stood fast and stared, seemingly unperturbed. 

The old blusterer was flabbergasted! With one movement he tore down branches, snapping them like matchsticks, and threw the pieces aside with such impatience that we could no longer be sure he was only pretending… A few more screams, some half hearted drumbeats!… All passion spent, he disappeared into the forest, barking and grumbling.

Such dramatic encounters are now rare since visitors only visit habituated groups. In many cases most of the hour is taken up by sitting in the rain, being ignored and listening to the random orchestration of gorilla flatulence.

Saza Chief died from wounds he got in a rare territorial fight against another silverback who had migrated from Rwanda with his own group. It was Batwa who carried the corpse down to Kisoro. Touching a gorilla was taboo for the Batutsi and Bahutu.

Due to the corpse’s rapid decomposition a pathologist, A. M. Wilson staying in Kabale, agreed to do an autopsy. Saza Chief died from asphyxiation caused by a blockage of food in his windpipe.

The police even frowned on me for not having taken the dead gorilla’s fingerprints! I wish I had. They might have proved quite instructive. I remembered the hands had shown crisscrossing lines. The lines of the life, heart, and destiny were all there, just as in human hands. An expert palmist might have read from them the age and character of the deceased.

The corpse was too badly damaged to be preserved and mounted. The skin was returned to Baumgartel, where it was unfortunately eaten by Susi, the hotel’s resident pig. The few scraps that survived were respectfully buried in the pet’s graveyard.

Featured image by Marcus Westberg and others by Dr. Magda Braum