This familiarity was not easily won. The textbook instructions for such studies are merely to sit and observe. I wasn’t satisfied with this approach; I felt that the gorillas would be doubly suspicious of any alien object that only sat and stared. Instead, I tried to elicit their conﬁdence and curiosity by acting like a gorilla. I imitated their feeding and grooming, and later, when I was surer what they meant, I copied their vocalizations, including some startling deep belching noises.
The gorillas have responded favorably, although admittedly these methods are not always digniﬁed. One feels a fool thumping one’s chest rhythmically, or sitting about pretending to munch on a stalk of wild celery as though it were the most delectable morsel in the world.
Gorillas are the largest of the great apes. A mature male may be six feet tall and weigh 400 pounds or more; his enormous arms can span eight feet. The mountain gorilla’s range is limited to a small area of lush wet forests in central Africa. There only a few thousand remain, leading a precarious existence. Part of the territory they occupy has been set aside as parkland, and, theoretically, gorillas are strictly protected. But in fact they are being pushed into ever-smaller ranges, chiefly by poachers and Batutsi herdsmen. Unless a better-planned and more-determined effort is made to save the mountain gorilla, it is doomed to extinction within the next two or three decades.
One of the basic steps in saving a threatened species is to learn more about it: its diet, its mating and reproductive processes, its range patterns, its social behavior. I had read of Jane Goodall’s studies of chimpanzees and visited her camp in Tanzania’s Gombe National Park. In 1967, with help from Dr. Louis Leakey and grants from the National Geographic Society and the Wilkie Brothers Foundation, I began a study of the gorilla.
The study was not without interruptions, one of them quite serious. I began my work in the Congo on the slopes of Mount Mikeno. After only six months of observation, I was forced to leave the country because of political turmoil in Kivu Province. This was a substantial setback, for the gorillas there roamed within a fairly well-protected park system without the constant threat of human intrusion. Thus they were not unduly frightened by my presence, and observations were extremely profitable.
After leaving the Congo, I started again, this time in Rwanda. My new camp is near a broad meadow that forms part of the saddle area connecting Mounts Karisimbi, Mikeno, and Visoke.