“Between the 23th and 24th October  I passed a wonderful primeval forest, where the natives claim a big human-like ape lives.” Thus, wrote Robert von Beringe in his report on the expedition from Bukoba on the shores of Lake Victoria to Lake Edward, skirting the north west edge of today’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Three years later on the 17th October 1902, during a diplomatic visit to the King of Rwanda and the German outposts, on the slopes of the Sabinyo Volcano he was the first white man to see a troup of mountain gorillas and shot two: the photographs and remains of one demonstrated the presence of gorillas beyond West Africa and were identified as Gorilla Gorilla Berengei by the Berlin Natural Science Museum.
Robert von Beringe (1865 – 1940), who joined as a volunteer in 1894 and was promoted to Captain in 1899, was part of the small elite of white professional officers of the German East Africa Protectorate Force, created in 1891. Germany had started the penetration of Tanzania in the mid 1880’s and consolidated its position in the 1890’s, pushing inland along the caravan routes. In 1896 the German had set up a military station in Usumbura (Bujumbura), in charge of both Burundi and Rwanda, of which Beringe was the ‘Resident’ from August 1902 to February 1904.
His expeditions were endeavoring to establish German ascendancy over the local rulers and territorial claims vis-?-vis the Belgians, pushing east from Coingo. In addition, officers like Beringe were building on the geographical discoveries of the explorers who first opened this area – mainly the Austrian Oskar Baumann (1864 – 1899) who first entered Rwanda in 1892 and the German Gustav Adolf von Götzen (1966 – 1910) who discovered Lake Kivu in 1894. In particular, Beringe is credited for contributing to the detailed mapping out of the volcanoes region and especially for discovering Lake Bunyonyi in 1899. These officers were also encouraged by the Natural Science Museum’s authorities to contribute to their collections: Beringe for instance also sent to the Museum a collection of coleoptera probably from south east Tanzania in 1987.
The two mountain populations, one in the Virunga Volcanoes area on the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda and the other in the Bwindi National Park in Uganda, belong to the Eastern group, which changes their classification to Gorilla Beringei Beringei. After chimpanzees, gorillas are our closest relatives and share about 97.7% of our DNA. Mountain gorillas are the largest living primates, an adult male weighing up to 180 kilograms (400 pounds), with an arm span of about two meters (seven feet). They have longer, thicker fur than Lowland gorillas and a slightly different nose shape among other skeletal differences.
Mountain gorillas do not survive in captivity, which is why they are not seen in zoos. Tracking the mountain gorilla through the misty forests requires patience and stamina, often walking for hours in the mud and the wet. Finally meeting them in the undergrowth is an inspiring moment. Quietly chewing away at their vegetarian delicacies, they seem like a marooned human family. The tender grooming and firm disciplining of their offspring seems all too familiar. The gorilla family cast a wary glance at the sudden human intrusion into their private world, but is comforted by the clucking made by the trackers. When provoked, the noisy but harmless silverback grunts, screeches, bares his fangs and beats his chest, before slithering off with attendant females, offspring and other mature males.
Trekking amongst the mountain gorillas of Rwanda is a heartwarming and memorable life changing experience – one of the richest and exciting experiences on earth. Each visit immerses you in the gorilla’s kingdom, surrounding you with fantastic views of bamboo forests, lush jungle and the exotic sounds of turraco bird calls and the chatter of golden monkeys. Gorilla Trekking is a worthwhile adventure and Africa’s undisputable safari highlight.
The lush and forested slopes form a dramatic natural setting for your face-to-face encounter with the gorillas. Trekking with these gentle giants through the damp, misty undergrowth gives you the adventurous experience of the first explorers. And standing amongst them as they eat, play, groom and rest – acting in every way like our own families – will take your breath away and leave you smiling for ages.
Meeting mountain gorillas in their misty natural habitat, where the courageous and famous American primatologist Dian Fossey lived, died and was buried while protecting them, is a privilege one shouldn’t miss in life. As Sir David Attenborough said, “There is more meaning and understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know.”
Did you know that you can see these great apes eye to eye in the wild? You can visit the mountain gorillas on a Rwanda tour through the Volcanoes National Park in the northern part of Rwanda. Learn how you can plan a trip to see these endangered primates and how you can book your next trip from one of the local tour operators listed on this website.