September 24, 2022
The Day of the Gorilla
- as seen by -Madeleine Thompson
On World Gorilla Day, we celebrate the animal that wildlife biologist George Schaller once called “more than an animal.” Indeed, as Schaller has written, as “a primal part of human heritage,” as “our kin,” gorillas have long stirred powerful emotions in humans. Just 70 years ago, though, that prevailing emotion was one of fear. A lack of knowledge and Hollywood tropes cast gorillas in popular perceptions as ferocious beasts.
In 1959, with funding from the National Science Foundation and the Wildlife Conservation Society, Schaller traveled to Central Africa with his advisor John Emlen to study mountain gorillas; Schaller stayed on, accompanied by his wife Kay, to continue the work. Their studies helped to establish population data that continues to guide conservationists today. Schaller also conducted further field research into the behavior and ecology of mountain gorillas. Approaching them with “empathy and respect,” as he has written, he spent several months making unprecedented observations of gorillas.
The publications Schaller produced from the study—including his popular The Year of the Gorilla (1964)—and the photos he returned with—including the one shown here, taken in 1960 in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo—helped to shape the public’s understanding of gorillas as gentle giants in need of protection.
That message has been carried forward by the generations of conservationists since, among them WCS staff. From the gorilla ecotourism and education programs that Amy Vedder and Bill Weber began in the late 1970s, to the creation of the Bronx Zoo’s Congo Gorilla Forest exhibit in 1999, to the field programs active today, WCS and others work every day to celebrate and protect gorillas.