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The Volcanoes National Park is one of the most popular mountain gorilla trekking destinations in Africa. Its establishment in 1925 was primarily to protect mountain gorillas and currently, there exist over 20 gorilla families in Volcanoes National Park but 12 habituated gorilla family groups set for tourists on Rwanda safari to trek.

Its more than 100 years, many people and groups have been working tooth and nail to ensure the survival of Mountain Gorillas in the jungles of Africa. Their history dates back in 1902 when Robert Von Beringe a Germany captain and the first European observed the Mountain Gorillas on the Sabyinyo Mountain…. one of the Virunga Volcano. They were later named Gorilla Gorilla Beringei by Matschie in 1903.

In 1925, an American naturalist named Carl Akeley convinced his Majesty Albert the king of Belgium to create Albert National Park which is the First National Park in Africa and its boundary was widened in 1929. George Schaller, who is an American zoologist in 1959 under took a basic study of the Mountain Gorillas of Albert National Park.

When Were the Gorillas discovered?

The word “gorilla” comes from the history of Hanno the Navigator, (500 BC) a Carthaginian explorer on an expedition on the west African coast to the area that later became Sierra Leone. Members of the expedition encountered “savage people, the greater part of who were women, whose bodies were hairy whom the interpreters by then called Gorillae”. The word was then later used as the species name, though it is unknown whether what these ancient Carthaginians encountered were truly gorillas.

The American physician and missionary Thomas Staughton Savage and naturalist Jeffries Wyman first described the western gorilla (they called it Troglodytes gorilla) in 1847 from specimens obtained in Liberia. The name was derived from Ancient Greek, meaning “tribe of hairy women” described by Hanno. From the scientific perspective, gorillas are tailless primates belonging to the family Hominidae and genus Gorilla. About 7 million years ago, their ancestors split from other primates known as the “great apes.” This group also includes chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans. Their habits are fascinating. Have you seen some gorillas that have silver hair on his back? Males acquire this color when they become mature adults, which have earned them the name of “silverback’

While saying the word Gorilla, one’s mind will come up with all kinds imaginative images from King Kong to some Tarzan movies. The Mountain Gorillas were not even known about by westerners until 1902. Rwanda was a German colony when a Captain von Berenge was climbing Mount Sabinyo on the Rwanda side with some friends and they were at the 9300 foot level and camped when a group of Mountain Gorillas was spotted and he shot two of them but could only retrieve one. It was a young male about 5 years old, 220 pounds and not too large, but larger than any apes the German had seen. Bones and skin were sent to Berlin where it was identified as a gorilla. No one had thought that gorillas could exist in such a high and much colder climate than West Africa. The news of these gorillas drew hunters to the area, especially the Congo where they shot or captured Mountain Gorillas. Prince Wilhelm of Sweden shot 14 mountain gorillas in a 1920-1921 expedition to the area.

The German explorer by names of Captain Robert Von Beringe on October 17, 1902 discovered on the ridges of the volcanic Virunga Mountains the mountain gorilla and was named Gorilla gorilla beringei in honor of the Captain. Captain von Beringe, together with a physician, Dr. Engeland, Corporal Ehrhardt, twenty Askaris, a machine gun and necessary porters set off from Usumbura on 19 August 1902 to visit the Sultan Msinga of Rwanda and then proceed north to reach a “row of volcanoes”. The purpose of the trip was to visit the German outposts in what was then German East Africa in order to keep in touch with local chiefs and to confirm good relations, while strengthening the influence and power of the German Government in these regions. On arriving at the volcanoes, an attempt was made to climb Mount Sabyinyo.

Dian Fossey came to Africa. In 1967, Fossey arrived at Kabara meadow, Schaller’s base in Congo’s Parc National des Virunga. After only six and a half months, political troubles forced her to move towards the border of the Rwandan sector of the Virunga Volcanoes, where she set up camp. Making a combination of the names Karisimbi and Visoke, the two nearest volcanoes, she christened the site Karisoke. It was to become one of the longest running field studies in primatology. Fossey’s first task was to habituate gorillas to the presence of observers. This process has always been easier with mountain gorillas than western population because the thick ground vegetation makes mountain gorillas easier to track.

It was a time for documenting and understanding variation on the basic gorilla theme. Gorillas first seen as small infants, and now reaching sexual maturity, did not always follow the same path into adulthood. For example, while some females dispersed, others remained in their natal groups with their close relatives. Some males too stayed behind, which meant that researchers could observe a breeding group with more than one silverback. Amy Vedder and David Watts studied ecological variation, showing that the gorillas’ habitat varied in both food abundance and quality. One leaf was not the same as another, and gorillas ranged accordingly, favouring high quality areas.

Across Africa, studies of other populations were starting to produce data for comparison with mountain gorillas. In Kahuzi – Biega, Zaire the current Democratic Republic of the Congo, observations of habituated Grauer’s gorillas became more systematic and consistent. Caroline Tutin established her long-term study of western gorillas at Lopé in 1980, and studies in the Central African Republic and Congo Brazzaville were getting underway. Meanwhile in Uganda, Tom Butynski was directing attention to the only other population of mountain gorillas, those in Bwindi Forest.

With the advent of new techniques for genetic analyses, gorilla taxonomy became a hot topic. How many species and subspecies were there? While some suggested, on the basis of morphology and ecology, that Bwindi gorillas be considered a separate subspecies from the Virunga population, DNA analyses showed the two populations to be almost identical. The genetic studies across populations during the 1990s helped to support the growing consensus of an east-west split into two species, eastern gorillas, Gorilla beringei (including Grauer’s and mountain subspecies), and western gorillas, Gorilla gorilla.

New technologies came to Karisoke during the 1990s. For example, Martha Robbins and Pascale Sicotte developed techniques for collecting fresh urine for hormonal analyses of males and females. Dieter Steklis helped implement GPS technology, which was also used in Bwindi, and has transformed the mapping of gorilla ranges, vegetation and human use. It has now become a crucial tool for park rangers as well as research teams.

Gorilla Tourism in Rwanda

Volcanoes National Park started as a small area surrounded by Mikeno, Visoke and Mikeno , gazetted in 1925 with the aim of protecting the mountain gorillas for gorilla safaris tours. In 1929, the boundaries were expanded further into Rwanda territory and into the Belgian Congo, to form the Albert National Park of Africa, a large area of 8090 km², run by the Belgian colonial authorities who were in charge of both colonies.

In 1960 after independence of Belgian Congo which was later named Zaire, Albert National Park was divided into two parts namely Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and the Virunga National Park in Congo.

Upon Rwandan independence in 1962 the new government accepted to maintain the park as a conservation and tourist destination, despite the fact that the new republic was already facing problems of overpopulation. The park was halved in area in 1969.

In 1967, the American Zoologist by the names of Dian Fossey began her first long term study on the wild gorillas in Volcanoes National Park which was finalized by her death. The park was turned into the base for the American naturalist for Dian Fossey’s research on mountain gorillas. She arrived in Rwanda in 1967 and set started the Karisoke Research Centre between Karisimbi and Visoke. Since that time she spent most of her time with the gorillas in the park, and is widely known for her famous work of saving the mountain gorillas in Rwanda from extinction by bringing their plight to the attention of the international community.

In 1973, an office in Rwanda called the Rwanda Office of Tourism and National Park Development was created and started giving Rwanda new laws governing the National Parks and hunting of wildlife.

In 1970/ 80, the campaign was to see how to control poaching, how to control the spread of traps and wire snares, to ensure that Mountain Gorillas are protected. Especially the killing in Volcanoes National Park of silverback Digit in 1978 and other five gorillas within a short period marked the worst moment ever and that helped to raise an international concern about the survival of gorillas. The tomb of Digit is still visited at the Old Karisoke Centre near the tomb of Dian Fossey (RIP), the best friend of Gorillas.

The first attempt to link gorilla conservation and tourism took place in Kahuzi Biega National Park in 1973. Kahuzi Biega is among the Gorilla parks of Congo which was first gazetted in 1970 and in 1975 was further expanded to up to 6000 Sq/km. In 1973, Gorilla trekking was officially launched, but later on were suspended as there was not enough studies and experience over the implications of humans – gorillas contacts and the “gorilla rules” were not yet clear.

Serious Gorilla conservation project started in 1979 in the history of gorilla conservation. It follows a convention between Rwanda Government and a consortium formed by private several organizations who are interested in Nature conservation such as the AWLF (African Wildlife Leadership Foundation, today African Wildlife Foundation), WWF, and FFPS (Fauna and Flora Preservation Society). The idea was to introduce gorilla tourism and education on top of anti-poaching efforts as a vehicle to achieve better gorilla conservation. The ability to generate tourism-based jobs and revenues would turn local and national politics attitudes in favor of gorillas.

Two groups of gorillas near Karisoke (Group 11 and 13) were selected to introduce an exercise of “habituation” so that they could be opened to tourist activities. Other families were not considered for the bad temper of some gorillas in regards to humans or for their distance from the starting point of the trekking. Particularly Group 11 had a very calm silverback, called Stilgar, and at the time four infants. The first experimental trekking started in October 1979 with some residents from Kigali. The first non residents’ tourists to visit the gorillas were the Europeans from TransAfrica overlanders in November 1979.

At first, gorilla trekking were limited to only six people per Gorilla group/family and even the time spent in contact with gorillas was limited to one hour as to prologue the visit would turn the attitude of the silverback against humans. Gorilla trekking fee was US$ 20 per trek. Especially, this “gorilla trekking” paved the foundations for the so called “gorilla rules”, in other words what humans should do or not to do when encountering the gorillas in their habitat; and this comes as a reflection of the reactions of the gorillas themselves to human visits.

The flow of visitors to Volcanoes National Park soon contributed to the improvement in the accommodation in Ruhengeri; secondly, more jobs as patrolling guards and trekking guides of the National Park were created.

On 27th December 1985, Dian Fossey was killed in her cabin at Karisoke Research Center and her death still remains a mystery. However, it is thought that Dian was killed by the poachers as she had become a threat to their illegal activities. She was buried at Karisoke in a cemetery she created for the gorillas, next her beloved Digit.  After her death, the census of the population of mountain gorillas in 1989 began and it was found that there were approximately 324 Gorillas in the Virunga Conservation Area and 320 in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest totaling to 644.

In 1992, it was announced that the silverback gorilla in the names of Mrithi of “Group 13” was killed by the poaching. On addition to that, the 1994 civil war in Rwanda cost the lives of over 18 mountain Gorillas during the fight. There is another sad part of the history of the Rwandan genocide of 1994: the Genocide of the Gorillas which put Gorilla tourism to a standstill.

Good news came in 1999, when Volcanoes National Park was re-opened for tourism by the Rwandan Office of Tourism and National Parks (ORTPN). The price for Gorilla trekking was $ 250, later on increased to $ 360 and in 2006 / 2007 further increased to $ 500.

On October 17th 2002, Mountain Gorillas Conservation Fund hosted the 100th anniversary of identification discovery of the mountain gorillas in Rwanda and in 2004 Keesling won a lifetime achievement award from British Airways for worldwide conservation efforts for gorilla protection.

In 2012 Rwanda Volcanoes National Park registered nine gorilla groups which were opened for gorilla tourism and from 1st of June the price of the gorilla permit is $ 750. From that time, Rwanda started leaping huge revenue from Gorilla tourism. Luxury, Deluxe and Budget accommodation set up was the order of the day.