Posted by: Loren Coleman on August 11th, 2008
The mountain gorilla (above) was first “discovered” on October 17, 1902, on the slopes of the volcanic Virunga mountains by German explorer Captain Robert von Beringe and his companions. The mountain gorilla was named Gorilla gorilla beringei in his honor.
The first mountain gorilla.
For the almost two centuries before the discovery, natives in eastern Africa told of their region’s “monster ape” (the ngagi and ngila) that allegedly kidnapped and killed locals.
The lowland gorilla (above) would be described by Western science in the mid-19th century, but the mountain gorilla would have to wait to be revealed in the 20th century.
Captain von Beringe (above), along with a physician named Engeland, Corporal Ehrhardt, twenty Askaris, and porters left from Usumbura on August 19, 1902, to visit the Sultan Msinga of Rwanda and then journeyed north to reach a “row of volcanoes.”
The objective of the trek 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, a try was made to reach the summit of Mount Sabyinyo.
A translation of Captain von Beringe’s report of the expedition follows:
“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 Dr. Matschi as a new subspecies of gorilla and named after von Beringe.
If one great ape can be discovered so recently, the question remains, will another new one be found in your lifetime?