Captain Robert von Beringe’s discovery


The first historical documentation of Mountain Gorillas was in 1902. A Captain Robert von Beringe, together with a physician, Dr. Engeland, Corporal Ehrhardt, twenty Askaris, a machine gun and necessary porters set off from Usumbura on 19 August 1902 to visit the Sultan Msinga of Rwanda and then proceed north to reach a "row of volcanoes". The purpose of the trip was to visit the German outposts in what was then German East Africa in order to keep in touch with local chiefs and to confirm good relations, while strengthening the influence and power of the German Government in these regions. On arriving at the volcanoes, an attempt was made to climb Mount Sabyinyo. The following is a translation of Captain von Beringe's report of the expedition:


"From October 16th. to 18th., senior physician Dr. Engeland and I together with only a few Askaris and the absolutely necessary baggage attempted to climb the so far unknown Kirunga ya Sabyinyo which, according to my estimation must have a height of 3300 metres. At the end of the first day we camped on a plateau at a height of 2500 metres; the natives climbed up to our campsite to generously supply us with food. We left our camp on October 17th. taking with us a tent, 8 loads of water, 5 Askaris and porters as necessary. After four and a half hours of tracking we reached a height of 3100 metres and tracked through bamboo forest; although using elephant trails for most of the way, we encountered much undergrowth which had to be cut before we could pass....After two hours we reached a stony area with vegetation consisting mainly of blackberry and blueberry bushes. Step by step we noticed the vegetation becoming poorer and poorer, the ascent became steeper and steeper, and climbing became more difficult - for the last one and a quarter hours we climbed only over rock. After covering the ground with moss we collected, we erected our tent on a ridge at a height of 3100 metres. The ridge was extremely narrow so that the pegs of the tent had to be secured in the abyss. The Askaris and the porters found shelter in rock caverns, which provided protection against the biting cold wind.


"From our campsite we were able to watch a herd of big, black monkeys which tried to climb the crest of the volcano. We succeeded in killing two of these animals, and with a rumbling noise they tumbled into a ravine, which had its opening in a north-easterly direction. After five hours of strenuous work we succeeded in retrieving one of these animals using a rope. It was a big, human-like male monkey of one and a half metres in height and a weight of more than 200 pounds. His chest had no hair, and his hand and feet were of enormous size. Unfortunately I was unable to determine its type; because of its size, it could not very well be a chimpanzee or a gorilla, and in any case the presence of gorillas had not been established in the area around the lakes".


On the journey back, the skin and one of the hands of the animal that von Beringe collected were taken by a hyena but the rest finally arrived safely at the museum in Berlin. It was later described by a Dr. Matschi as a new subspecies of gorilla after von Beringe.

 
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History of Gorillas

The word "gorilla" comes from the history of Hanno the Navigator, a Carthaginian explorer on an expedition on the west African coast. They encountered "a savage people, the greater part of whom were women, whose bodies were hairy, and who our interpreters called Gorillae". The word was then later used as the species name, though it is unknown whether what these ancient Carthaginians encountered were truly gorillas, another species of ape or monkeys, or humans.

American physician and missionary Thomas Staughton Savage obtained the first specimens (the skull and other bones) during his time in Liberia in Africa. The first scientific description of gorillas dates back to an article by Savage and the naturalist Jeffries Wyman in 1847 in Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History, where Troglodytes gorilla is described, now known as the Western Gorilla. Other species of gorilla are described in the next couple of years.

Explorer Paul du Chaillu was the first westerner to see a live gorilla during his travel through western equatorial Africa from 1856 to 1859. He brought dead specimens to the UK in 1861.

The first systematic study was not conducted until the 1920s, when Carl Akeley of the American Museum of Natural History traveled to Africa to hunt for an animal to be shot and stuffed. On his first trip he was accompanied by his friends Mary Bradley, a famous mystery writer, and her husband. After their trip, Mary Bradley wrote On the Gorilla Trail. She later became an advocate for the conservation of gorillas and wrote several more books (mainly for children). In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Robert Yerkes and his wife Ava helped further the study of gorillas when they sent Harold Bigham to Africa. Yerkes also wrote a book in 1929 about the great apes.

After World War II, George Schaller was one of the first researchers to go into the field and study primates. In 1959, he conducted a systematic study of the mountain gorilla in the wild and published his work. Years later, at the behest of Louis Leakey and the National Geographic, Dian Fossey conducted a much longer and more comprehensive study of the Mountain Gorilla. It was not until she published her work that many misconceptions and myths about gorillas were finally disproved, including the myth that gorillas are violent.

Drawing of French explorer Paul du Chaillu at close quarters with a gorilla
 

Further reading: