Last Tuesday I drew your attention to the book ‘Life with Daktari, written by Susanne Hart. In this book she talks about people she met during her time in Kenya where she worked as a vet, specialized in wildlife. One of these people was George Schaller, reading this name, I thought: I have come across this name before. Indeed, a book by Schaller is on a shelf in my study.
At the end of the fifties (last century) Schaller got the opportunity to do research on the topic of gorillas. In February 1959 (two years after the opportunity for this research was mentioned to Schaller) he sailed for Africa. He wrote a scientific study on his research, under the title ‘The Mountain Gorilla’ (1963). The book ‘The Year of the Gorilla’ is a popular book on his research and his personal life during the year he spent at the Virunga area.
The book starts with a short survey on the study into gorillas during the ages. Many stories circulated, in which the gorilla (especially the mountain gorilla) was a vicious monster, a danger to mankind.
At first Schaller spends time in travelling through areas in which there are gorilla populations. He makes clear that he is not very keen on the work of missionaries, but this attitude does not hinder him to accept the help of these people. Finally he decides to settle in the Virunga area, in the Belgian colony of Congo. The area is close to Uganda (British) and Rwanda (Belgian). He settles in a small cabin at Kabhara, where he lives with his wife and Andrea Batinihirwa, a local man who will do daily chores, like chopping firewood. Also a gamewarden was present, who would stay for three weeks and then another one would come.
On a daily basis Schaller moves in the jungle to meet with the different gorilla groups. At times he sleeps near one of these groups. He gets to know many gorillas and the animals seems to accept his presence. He makes notes and his wife in the little cabin in the woods converts these notes via a typewriter to a readable work. Schaller gets very familiar with these imposing animals and he notices that the stories about these ferocious animals are a far cry from the truth.
Near the end of the book the work of science is being disrupted by the troubles caused by clashes between Hutu and Tutsi, later on the surge for independence of the Belgian colony Congo is causing people to leave the area. Schaller does his utmost to continue his work, just as others who have a duty in the protection of wildlife. One of these is the Belgian game warden Jacques Verschuren, who tries to continue his works in the parks where he spend many years. Congolese game warden do their utmost to continue the work of protecting wildlife. In this way the story of the gorillas become a story of politics.
Schaller wrote an engaging book on the world of gorillas. Due to his scientific approach we get as readers a balanced view of these animals that have set the imagination of men at work.
George B. Schaller – The year of the gorilla – 1963