My studies are conducted from a camp in Rwanda's Parc des Volcans, on the saddle between Mount Visoke and Mount Karisimbi, two of the eight volcanoes in the Virunga range. Camp, which consists of several sheet-metal cabins, stands at 10,000 feet; a rough jeep road starts up the mountain, but the last 2,000 feet must be climbed on foot, a winding, three-mile hike. In addition to the gorillas, local fauna includes duikers and buffalo, and elephants frequently visit a creek in front of my cabin. The nearest store is 19 miles away.
My work began in 1967 with help from Dr. Louis S. B. Leakey and aid from the Wilkie Brothers Foundation. Shortly thereafter the project gained, the support of the National Geographic Society which has continued to sponsor my research. A report appeared in the Geographic of January 1970. Much has happened since, but my job is far from finished.
There had been scientific observations of wild mountain gorillas in the past, notably a research project by Dr. George B. Schaller in 1959-60, a classic in its field. My objective was to take up where these had left off, to form more intimate contacts with gorilla groups and individuals, to observe from close up their behavior, their interactions—and to do this in such a way that my own presence did not affect that behavior. To accomplish this I decided, in a word, to act like a gorilla.
One of the first things I learned about my subjects was that despite their great bulk—400 pounds or more—and the many tales of ferocious attacks on people, they are in fact among the gentlest of animals, and the shiest. Like most wild creatures, they will try to protect themselves when attacked and to guard their young. But in some 3,000 hours of contact I encountered only a few minutes of aggressive behavior. These incidents were generally initiated by protective adults when their young approached me too closely. In all instances the "charges" proved to be bluff.