History – 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.