Dawn of Gorilla Tracking as a Tourism Activity

Mountain gorilla infant in bamboo; photo by Simona Seliskar
Mountain gorilla infant in bamboo; photo by Simona Seliskar

While there were sporadic non-scientific expeditions to mountain gorillas before, real tourism began with the arrival of Walter Baumgartel. Baumgartel was a German who had lived in South Africa, helped the British with reconnaissance photography during World War II, and eventually found an enticing ad in London: they were looking for somebody interested a hotel job in Tanzania. From there Baumgartel travelled much further towards the centre of the African continent, up to Kisoro.

Walter Baumgartel in front of Travellers Rest Hotel; photo from hotel archives
Walter Baumgartel in front of Travellers Rest Hotel; photo from hotel archives

In 1955 he became the sole proprietor of  Travellers Rest Hotel and began to offer gorilla tracking to his guests. He built a small camp on the saddle between Mts. Muhavura and Gahinga; he was genuinely interested in the gorillas and attempted to involve the international science community. However, the gorillas’ elusiveness was a problem. Baumgartel tried to habituate the gorillas by offering them various foods but all his attempts were unsuccessful; though this led to later successful tracking methods using Batwa guides. Eventually some groups did get habituated, more by accident than design. Baumgartel’s main guide was a Hutu named Rueben (Roveni) Rwanzagire of Nyarusiza, a mountain guide.

Baumgartel’s hotel became a mecca for visiting biologists from all over the world; the guest register has all the top names in the field from that time. These included Sir Julian and Lady Huxley who had visited the area once before in 1929 and walked from Kabale to Kabara, via Rutshuru, to visit Akeley’s grave. Robert Ardrey, dramatist, actor and evolutionist, who wrote a number of controversial books on human origins and evolution, visited to gain an understanding of the links between primate and human behaviour. Niels Bolwig, Witwatersrand University, was the first to study gorilla nest building.

There were some less than serious researchers. In his book “Up Among the Mountain Gorillas” Baumgartel tells of one who suggested tracking from a balloon, observation posts and tying cow bells around gorillas’ necks, though he declined to attach the bells himself.

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