The Story of Two Pioneers in the Habituation of Eastern Gorillas

Categories: Tourism, Journal no. 52, History, Eastern gorillas, Gorilla Journal

Two gorilla world's pioneers in different positions in front of gorillas. Left: Adrien Deschryver in habituation (eastern lowland gorillas) in Kahuzi-Biega National Park (1960s); right: Dian Fossey in habituation (mountain gorillas) in Volcanoes National Park (1960s) (© John Kahekwa Munihuzi)

Scientifically, there are four subspecies of gorillas: Gorilla beringei beringei, Gorilla beringei graueri, Gorilla gorilla gorilla and Gorilla gorilla diehli. These four subspecies are further divided between two species, in two geographic regions: eastern gorillas and western gorillas. The eastern gorillas comprise two subspecies: (1) the eastern lowland gorillas or Gorilla beringei graueri, also known as Grauer's gorilla and (2) Gorilla beringei beringei or mountain gorillas.

I have more than 33 years of experience with gorillas as an outcome of my involvement in tourism and the habituation of the Grauer's gorillas in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park (KBNP) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). I also have experience with mountain gorillas in the Virunga National Park in the DRC. In addition, I am acquainted with the western lowland gorillas in the Moukalaba Doudou National Park in the Republic of Gabon.

I have learned a great deal about this subject from the earliest years of my childhood, since I am a nephew of Agnes Bujiriri M'Rwankuba, the wife of Adrien Deschryver, the co-founder of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park.

Since the 1960s, two people have gained much prominence in the approach of the two subspecies of gorillas in the heart of Africa in the neighbouring countries of Rwanda and the DRC. These two individuals are very different personalities with origins in two continents and countries. They investigated two subspecies of gorillas in neighbouring countries in the heart of Africa, Rwanda and the DRC. I am referring to a Belgian man called Adrien Deschryver and an American woman named Dian Fossey. Over the course of my entire life, I have respected and admired both of them for their determination and their inspirational initiative in approaching wild gorillas, even when the two were accompanied by trainers.

Deschryver approached the gorillas in the KBNP in mid-1960s for tourism. He was accompanied on a daily basis by two trackers of the Pygmy tribe, Pili Pili Purusi and Mishebere Patrice. Pygmies are natives of the forest, who lived there before the Zairian government made the Kahuzi-Biega area a National Park. Pygmies do not need a compass or a GPS to make their way through the forest. Rangers call them "natural compasses". They tracked the first gorilla group, which Deschryver named Casimir.

Dian Fossey visited the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and approached a gorilla group she called "Group 4" with a male she later named Digit. She was also accompanied by native trackers who knew the park well. One of the trackers was called Sembagare. Fossey approached mountain gorillas with the goal of long-term research.

The two pioneers inspiringly provided good jobs in each site without knowing or consulting each other.

Wild gorillas are 'hot' during the first contacts with a human being. Both courageous people showed strength in using signs which finally made the gorillas accept the presence of people around them in these natural habitats.

I decided to illustrate Dian Fossey’s and Adrien Deschryver's different methods of habituating the two subspecies of eastern gorillas in remembrance of the people who lived their experiences in the field and for the benefit of the generations who did not know them. Their tremendous work in the DRC and Rwanda have been a great resource for the governments' economies, research and, in the future, for the communities affiliated with the gorillas. These two pioneers of gorilla habituation passed away in the 1980s. Dian Fossey was murdered in 1985 by people who have not been identified and she was buried at the Karisoke Research Center. Adrien Deschryver died of a heart attack in 1989 and was buried at the Tshivanga headquarters. May their souls rest in peace forever.

The silverback gorilla Digit was slain by poachers in 1977 and Digit was also buried at the Karisoke Research Center. The silverback gorilla Casimir died of old age after a severe fight with a young male in his group in 1975. Casimir's corpse was brought to the CRSN-Lwiro's scientific center where his skeleton is preserved.

John Kahekwa Munihuzi

The different methods, several similarities and the results in approaching gorillas

Adrien Deschryver in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Dian Fossey in the Volcanoes National Park, Republic of Rwanda

He always stood up in front of the silverback Casimir.

She always knelt down in front of Digit.

He always looked in the eyes of Casimir.

She always looked aside to avoid the face to face contact with Digit.

He spoke a few words to Casimir, "Come, come Casimir".

She did not speak to Digit.


He always beat his chest like a gorilla in front of Casimir.

She always beat her chest beat like a gorilla in front of Digit.

He always ate some leaves like a gorilla in front of Casimir.

She always ate some leaves like a gorilla in front of Digit.


Casimir habituated to Deschryver's gestures.

Digit habituated to Fossey's gestures.