Published: July 2008

The Mountain Gorillas of Africa

Gorilla Family Forest

Gentle Gorillas, Turbulent Times

(Originally published in the October 1995 issue of National Geographic)

By George B. Schaller
Photograph by Michael Nichols

On January 22, 1991, my wife, Kay, and I sat on the summit of Mount Visoke, one of the eight Virunga volcanoes that straddle the borders of Rwanda, Zaire, and Uganda. We had come to help with a mountain gorilla film. That morning we had left the Karisoke Research Center, the base of Dian Fossey's gorilla work from 1967 until she was killed by unknown assailants in 1985. Her hut of green corrugated metal remained, littered with remnants of her past. Still on the wall was a plastic Santa Claus, a poignant reminder that she died at Christmastime. Beside her cabin, shaded by moss-laden boughs of hagenia trees, was her grave, along with those of 17 gorillas, one dog, and one monkey.

But it was not a day for us to dwell on tragedy. Instead of the swirling gray fog and rain-drenched slopes that are so common here, the volcanoes rose stark and clear above a shimmering forest. To the west, in the saddle between Mikeno and Karisimbi, the two highest volcanoes, was a place called Kabara. Kay and I had lived there in 1959 and 1960 while conducting the first intensive gorilla study. Now, after three decades, we had returned to an idyll of our past.

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