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  • Cited by 7
  • Print publication year: 2001
  • Online publication date: March 2010

1 - Mountain gorillas of the Virungas: a short history



In January 1999, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology hosted a conference in Leipzig, to celebrate more than three decades of research on wild mountain gorillas at the Karisoke Research Center. To be more specific, it was 32 years and 9 months since Dian Fossey had set up camp in the Rwandan sector of the Virunga Volcanoes (Figure 1.1). On September 24, 1967, using a marriage of Karisimbi and Visoke, the names of the two closest volcanoes, Fossey christened her site Karisoke. She could not have known that this would be her home for the rest of her life, or that the tent she pitched at 3000m in that wet, montane forest would become one of the longest-running research sites in field primatology. Many of the direct descendants of the mountain gorillas she first contacted in 1967 are still being observed today.

The story of Karisoke is a chronicle of the development of behavioral and ecological research, intertwined with the growth of conservation efforts to save mountain gorillas. It has been played out against a backdrop of political instability and, over the past decade, devastating war. We present briefly this story below, to set the stage for the chapters that follow (for a more detailed description of the development and history of behavioral ecology, we recommend Strier, 1994 and Janson, 2000).

The intellectual setting

By 1967, primatology and anthropology were ripe for a long-term study of gorillas. It was four years after the publication of George Schaller's classic work, The Mountain Gorilla, a landmark study of remarkable detail that described the basics of the subspecies‘ social organization, life history, and ecology (Schaller, 1963).