Half of the Mountain Gorillas still living in Africa, about a thousand, is located on the Virunga Mountains which are divided between 3 States: Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. Of course, these animals do not recognize borders and pass from one State to another according to their needs, mainly searching for food.
From a tourist point of view, in recent years, Rwanda is perhaps the most organized country although often to access its territory and see gorillas, guided tours take tourists to Uganda. 99% of Europeans and Americans, pass through a short stretch of the Democratic Republic of Congo through customs and then move on to Rwanda. There is usually a walk which takes about two hours and can be experienced by anyone who is fairly fit, in order to have a chance to see the magnificent spectacle of at least one group of Primates in their natural environment. In addition, it is also necessary to have good weather because on the Virunga and at those altitudes it often rains even heavily and for a long time. So it is better to avoid the rainy season.
To get to the Virunga Mountains you have to purchase a ticket which is around 1.500 US dollars per person with a maximum of 10 visitors at a time, a large amount of money, if you consider that a front row ticket to attend an opera in one of the most important theaters in the world, costs a lot less! A private visit can be up to $15.000, considering that the cheaper lodge in the area for a single night costs about $3.000 per couple. Now two questions arise. Why do we have to pay such a large amount of money to see a group of gorillas in their natural environment, when an African family can live on that amount for a year? It seems a contradiction, but the main fact is that, in addition to the speculation that the local authorities gain from it, the demand around the world to see gorillas on the Virunga Mountains has increased so much in recent years that the price has shot up enormously. However, this would be the lesser evil because, despite all the efforts, Mountain Gorillas are in great danger of extinction.
In recent years, the situation in this part of Africa has stabilised politically, but let us not forget that in 1994 in Rwanda there was genocide when during a period of around three months one million people were brutally murdered, even the Nazis at Auschwitz would have felt belittled by this 'very effective' ethnic cleaning! It was an unprecedented civil war to which the world turned its back, with the complicity of the United Nations, which did nothing to stop it when its troops were already present in the territory. The most shocking fact is that even today in Kigali many of those executioners and their sponsors go around unpunished and free, in general indifference. 27 years have passed since that horror and in 2015 tourists in Rwanda had more than a million, many of them visited purely to see Mountain Gorillas, not for anything else, and if the prices to go to the Virunga Mountains are the ones just mentioned, we have to say two fundamental things.
The first is that those who visit these places are not only primatologists, but people with morbid curiosity and often not environmentally friendly. In my career, I have never met a wealthy primatologist, but Ph.D. students or novice PhDs and often without a penny to their name. If so, to almost all primatologists, a visit to the Virunga Mountains is practically de rigueur, while it is possible for very rich tourists who often confuse a gorilla with a chimpanzee! That is not fair. Visits to the Virunga Mountains for primatologists should be free of charge. Of course, on the Virunga Mountains for study reasons, even in the long term, there may be researchers who have the permission of their institutes, but there are very few, in fact, you can count them on the fingers of one hand.
The Mountain Gorilla
The Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei) is a subspecies of the Gorilla gorilla. Gorillas have other subspecies that live elsewhere in Africa, and those located in West Africa are called Lowland Gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla). The Mountain Gorilla is the best known of the gorillas and is the subspecies to which Dian Fossey dedicated her life1.
The Mountain Gorilla is mainly vegetarian, with a few exceptions. They eat 142 species of different plants including some ferns, glumifores, bamboo and many herbaceous species. They also feed on some parasites and climbing plants. Their diet occasionally includes crabs, snails and ants.
Given their size (about 200 kg in weight and 180 cm in height) in freedom this animal has no enemies, except for humans. It has a home-range (the area used by a group in a year of activity) between 400 and 800 hectares and in one day can move about 400 meters, basically the Mountain Gorilla is a rather settled species. Despite their exceptional size they are very delicate animals. The fact is they can easily get sick from different diseases: petechial hemorrhages, liver adenomas, heart disease, dysplasia, septicemia, hepatitis and tumors in various organs. At large the Mountain Gorilla, if they are in good health, can live up to 30 years of age and what is extraordinary is that in captivity and, as we know, many gorillas are locked up in zoos for the delight of reckless children and adults, can live up to 40, even 50 years of age. This is due to the fact that in captivity they can receive adequate medical care that in nature is not possible.
Another serious danger to the Mountain Gorilla is poaching. Just to give an example, at the Karisoke Research Center, founded by Dian Fossey in 1967, only in the Rwandan Virunga Mountains, between 3500 and 3800 meters above sea level, in one year more than 600 traps were removed by the park guards, which although they had been set to catch antelopes, had trapped gorillas and in which, gorillas rather than dying immediately, suffered injuries which lead slowly to death amid immense pain.
Virunga gorillas were mainly studied by Dian Fossey for about twenty years until her tragic death on December 26th, 1985, she was killed in a brutal assassination. It has yet to come to light who carried this out2. What prompted Fossey to travel to Virunga was not an academic ambition, but a love for animals, for gorillas in particular, then for a strong sense of responsibility and for the defense of this endangered species. Her choice was full of difficulties, inconveniences and economic difficulties. There have also been many misunderstandings about her, at all levels, caused by the ignorance of the local people who never understood the importance of her work, but what is more serious because of the misunderstandings of many of her colleagues who enviously pontificated about her research while sitting in comfortable armchairs in their university campuses. On this point, the only one who gave her confidence and supported her project was Louis Leakey, the great British paleontologist who needed to prove absolutely that these animals were a fundamental link between the ape evolution and human one.
The world of Primatology is very varied and sometimes ambiguous for the simple fact that to achieve success, to which everyone aspires, it takes a great amount of sacrifice which is often not repaid. It is a world full of frustrations and jealousies, who knows what secrets are hidden from others, especially colleagues!
Personally, in various circumstances, I have come up against these fears and mistrust from some of my colleagues who worked on the field, especially in Africa. Some of them, thinking that they did not receive any personal advantage from my visits to the parks where they worked, even hid from me the places where the monkeys were at the time, citing as an excuse the danger that I could bring some contagious disease and spread it to the animals, when they knew very well that I could go and visit by myself, as sometimes happened with the help of a local guides.
The death of Dian Fossey which was probably carried out by poachers was blamed elsewhere, even among her collaborators, but has never been proved and in fact, the case is still unsolved. There is also a fact that ordinary people are often passed over because they do not know how field research works. There are researchers, especially primatologists, whose purpose is to become academics even if this is difficult to achieve because the primatologist must devote a lot of time to field research and therefore live away from the "palace intrigues" of the Faculties and Universities. Remoteness prevents them from having a good understanding of which mechanisms govern academic careers. Then, there is to consider the results of primatologists working in the field, as Dian Fossey did, and the diffusion of their research which is often carried out more by the media, especially television, than by academia.
To put it clearly, let us take the example of Dian Fossey and if we also want that of Jane Goodall and Biruté Galdikas, three great primatologists, all women, who have never allowed themselves to be taken by the immoderate desire to become university professors. In fact, none of the three chose this career path or even considered it. All three have never - or almost never - written articles respecting the classical rules of scientific publication that are very strict with complex drafts, graphics and statistical analysis of the data sometimes exaggerated. The most technical things they have written are their PhD thesis. Well, despite these "gaps" that in fact do not matter so much in reality, all three have become famous all over the world. This has aroused many envies, especially from colleagues who in their curricula have hundreds and hundreds of publications (that only a few have read), thinking that the quantity could be replaced by the quality of their research.
In conclusion, the reality is that thanks to Dian Fossey's dream that cost her life, we can still see these wonderful gorillas in the Virunga Mountains. Her courage, determination and death allowed it, otherwise on those mountains today there would be nothing3.
For your tireless legacy, we thank you Dian!
1 Fossey, D. 1983. Gorillas in the mist. Boston, Houghton Mifflin.
2 Gordon, N.Y. 1994. Murders in the mist: who killed Dian Fossey. London, Hodder & Stoughton Limited.
3 Tartabini,A. 2008. Il mondo in bilico. Milano, Mursia Editore.