The idea behind this design is to depict the Mountain Gorilla in its cloud forest habitat while also paying homage to the diorama at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, conceived by the great Carl Akeley (1864-1926). Akeley was the pioneer of modern taxidermy, sculptor, adventurer and conservationist who died and was buried in the Virunga mountains on his final African expedition.
Virunga National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the oldest protected areas in Africa, straddling the Albertine Rift Valley, contiguous with Uganda and Rwanda. The park and the region in general, has been subjected to much political upheaval and human conflict in recent decades and the current situation within the protected area is captured powerfully and poignantly in the Netflix documentary ‘Virunga’ – highly-recommended viewing.
Back in the 1920’s, it was Carl Akeley’s vision to immortalize the various biomes of Africa, with their characteristic large mammals and other species, in a series of dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History – www.amns.org – This bold and ambitious plan, required the hunting and killing of ‘specimens’, that would become the figures in each carefully planned scene. So meticulous was the process, that landscape artists, botanists and geologists accompanied Akeley on his numerous expeditions, in order to sketch and later paint the diorama backgrounds, as well as collect plants, rocks and even soil that would provide complete authenticity to these ‘windows into the wild’. Having shot five Mountain Gorillas for the diorama in 1921 (a horror beyond our present-day imaginations) Akeley was so moved that he persuaded King Albert of Belgium (the colonial authority in Congo of the day) to create the Albert National Park for the protection of the gorillas and their mountain habitat – this was later renamed as Virunga National Park.
The view in my poster is precisely that depicted by Akeley’s appointed artist William R. Leigh – from a clearing on the northern slopes of Mount Karisimbi – showing the smoking cones of Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira as well as the distant Lake Kivu. This precise viewpoint site was only determined in 2010 on an expedition by Stephen C.Quinn of the AMNH. The chest-thumping ‘silverback’ and background featuring the smoking volcano of Nyiragongo have become the primary elements of my own interpretation, which features Wild Celery (Peucedanum linderi – the gorilla’s primary food), Virunga Blackberries (Rubus runssorensis) and over-arching Rosewood (Hagenia abyssinica) trees, as well an endemic Archer’s Robinchat.
The southern sector of Virunga NP, incorporating the volcanic peaks of Mikeno, Karisimbi, Visoke and Sabinio (the latter three shared with Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda), was later to become the location for field work conducted between 1959 and 1961 by the renowned biologist George Schaller and from 1969 by Dian Fossey, who subsequently moved to the southern slope of Visoke in Rwanda to the Karisoke Research Centre where she was infamously murdered in 1985.
These days, the viewing of Mountain Gorillas entails a steep trek into forest habitat of the volcano slopes in the company of guides and armed guards. Just an hour in the presence of a troop is allowed, but for everyone who has this incredible privilege, it is a mesmerising and sometimes life-changing experience. The tourism model for gorilla viewing is low numbers of visitors, paying a high price, and this cost is sadly out of reach of most people – the important consolation is that the gorillas THEMSELVES are not subjected to large numbers of humans and the income generated protects their habitat. My own opportunity came in 1996, when my wife Tracey and I visited the Sabinio troop in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.
The Virunga National Park is one of Africa’s oldest yet most troubled protected areas. The southern sector provides habitat for half of the world’s surviving Mountain Gorillas. The forest home of these great apes has been carefully protected in recent years as global interest in gorilla viewing has led to a tourism industry that profits local economies. It is crucial that travellers can soon return to the Virunga volcanoes in order that habitat and wildlife can continue to be secured. If you ever wish to travel to Virunga National Park in DRC – to see and photograph the Mountain Gorillas, visit the grave of Carl Akeley and perhaps even climb to the rim of the spectacularly active Nyiragongo volcano, I can wholeheartedly recommend Royal Geographic Society adventurer Warren Pearson as your guide.
The Virunga National Park is one of Africa’s oldest yet most troubled protected areas. The southern sector incorporates the volcanic peaks (shared with Rwanda and Uganda) where half of the world’s Mountain Gorillas survive. The forest home of these great apes has been carefully protected in recent years as global interest in gorilla viewing has led to a tourism industry that profits local communities. It is crucial that travellers can soon return to the Virunga volcanoes in order that habitat and wildlife is secured.
To learn more about the park and the challenges that it faces, the superb, award-winning NETFLIX documentary film ‘Virunga’ is highly recommended viewing!
The life and times (and death) of the various people who have searched for, studied and tried to protect Mountain Gorillas have given birth to a number of books which make for captivating reading, before or after, any trip to the Virungas. These four titles have pride of place in my own library and are highly recommended – out-of-print titles can usually be found on sites such as abebooks.com and alibris.com
Visiting Virunga National Park in the DRC also provides the more adventurous traveller with the incredible opportunity of seeing an active volcano after dark. A challenging hike an overnight camp on the lip of Mount Nyiragongo – peering into the boiling red-hot lava of our planet’s core – is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You can undertake this trip (combined of course with a gorilla viewing day trip) in the capable care of renowned safari guide Warren Pearson.
Duncan Butchart, August 2020