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Walter Baumgärtel–The Father of Gorilla Tourism in Uganda

Posted by on March 4, 2021

Uganda’s Gorilla Tourism Visionary – Walter Baumgärtel

Few know of Walter Baumgärtel–The Father of Gorilla Tourism in Uganda. 

Walter Baumgärtel–The Father of Gorilla Tourism in UgandaWalter Baumgärtel–The Father of Gorilla Tourism in Uganda:  It was his first encounter with Mountain Gorillas that was instrumental in his determination to protect the Mountain Gorillas. Walter Baumgärtel became known as the Father of early Gorilla Tourism in Uganda. 

He was the Travellers Rest Hotel owner-manager, a place often visited by Primate enthusiasts, gorilla researchers, and tourists.

He convinced, after many attempts, the British Colonial Wildlife Authorities to allow visitors to his hotel to see the Mountain Gorillas in the nearby forests and hills surrounding Kisoro in Southwest Uganda.

Today, few know of Walter Baumgärtel –The Father of Gorilla Tourism in Uganda. Fewer know about his Mutwa tracker and guide Reuben Rwazangire.

We attempt to shed a bit of light on the history of Uganda’s Gorilla Conservation and Gorilla Tourism and about the first promoter of primate tourism in Uganda.

Walter Baumgärtel–The Father of Gorilla Tourism in Uganda was born on December 22, 1902, in the Saxonian town of Delitzch in Germany. Sadly he is not listed as one of the famous Duitscher’s in Wikipedia. He certainly is on our list as the one who influenced early Gorilla Conservation and TourismWalter Baumgärtel–The Father of Gorilla Tourism in Uganda in the Gorilla Highlands of Southwest Uganda.

Walter Baumgärtel grew up in Delitzch, Germany, where he became a bookbinder apprentice. His dreams, likely influenced by the Adventure Novels of Karl May, went far beyond the confines of his town, province, and country of Germany.

Walter Baumgärtel was not content to live out his life in a small German town. He had a hunger to see what was beyond its borders. An inner urge for more of the world, something German’s call “Sehnsucht nach der Ferne.” 

Walter Baumgärtel, infected with an insatiable dose of “Wanderlust,” ventured into lands along the Mediterranean Sea, East Africa, onward to Sri Lanka and Malaysia. 

In 1927after the first World War, Germany was a country in despair. Germany had lost the great war, was in part occupied by foreign forces, and was going through internal political upheaval. Lack and Hopelessness were the order of the day.

No wonder that at the age of 25, he journeyed to Cape Town, South Africa, where he worked as a freelance photographer, selling photographs and musical instruments.Walter Baumgärtel–The Father of Gorilla Tourism in Uganda

During World War II, he was in the British Military as an air-reconnaissance photographer. After the war, he spent time enjoying the town of Florence in Italy.

During a visit to London, England, Walter Baumgärtel became aware of a job in a hotel located at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in Arusha, Tanzania.

He returned to Africa in the early 1950s. He did not want to work as an employee for someone. He came across a partnership opportunity at the Travellers Rest Hotel in Kisoro. He subsequently took over and became the sole proprietor of the hotel in 1955.

Kisoro is located in Southwest Uganda near the borders with Rwanda, and the now DR Congo is a short drive to the Gorilla Sanctuary, which is now Mgahinga Gorilla Park. Similarly, it was a quick trip to Kayonza Forest, which is now Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.  

The town of Kisoro, then and now, is surrounded by scenic wonders. The Virunga Volcanoes included three in Uganda, Lake Mutanda, and the terraced hillsides surrounding the town. 

Walter Baumgärtel faced some challenges making Travellers Rest Hotel into a welcome place, but he did it. Visitors began to flock to his establishment that offered a delightful German-style menu.Walter Baumgärtel–The Father of Gorilla Tourism in Uganda

 Visitors were not only travelers and occasional tourists but Primate Researchers, Conservationists, and scientists.   

The early Travellers Rest Hotel became a base frequented by George Schaller, Bernhard Grzimek, Raymond Dart, and now the famous Dian Fossey, among many others. 

 Dian Fossey went as far as to call Walter Baumgärtel’s Travellers Rest Hotel “her second home.” She further wrote, “His Travellers Rest Hotel had been an oasis to many scientists preceding me … I had met Walter on my first safari in 1963, and during the six-and-a-half-month study in 1967 had grown to think of him as one of the kindest and most endearing friends I had made in Africa.”

Walter Baumgärtel’s time at the Travellers Rest Hotel was one of the best and most enjoyable times of his life. Not only were there the enriching times that he spent with his guests, but the times he ventured into hills and forests and had his encounters with the Gentle Giants of the Forest, the Mountain Gorillas.

During his time at Travellers Rest Hotel, he wrote his first book, “König in Gorillaland” (King in Gorilla Land), published in 1960.Walter Baumgärtel–The Father of Gorilla Tourism in Uganda

The Hotelier Walter Baumgärtel took a keen interest in the Mountain Gorillas in now Mgahinga Gorilla Park and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Those

His first encounter transformed him, and he became a dedicated conservationist. He, unlike Dian Fossey, strongly felt that Gorilla Tourism would underwrite Gorilla Conservation. 

As is done today, Walter Baumgärtel did not venture into the forests alone but was accompanied by his beloved Guide and Tracker Reuben Rwazangire.

Reuben Rwazangire was part of the hunter-gatherer Batwa people. They were the best trackers and guides into the ancient forests. It would be most appropriate if there were Batwa Guides for Gorilla Trekking today.

It was their home. They had lived there for thousands of years in harmony with nature, leaving a small ecological footprint behind them. (Today, they are conservation refugees, evicted from their land.)

A Batwa Saying states it best “A Mutwa (Singular Batwa) loves the forest as much as he loves his own body.”Walter Baumgärtel–The Father of Gorilla Tourism in Uganda

During the 1960s, the gorilla population was reduced due to a loss of habitat. Human encroachment turned forests into farmland. Poaching became a widespread practice. There was a demand for gorillas by zoos where mountain gorillas would not survive. It was common to sell Gorilla body parts. Even gorilla hands were turned into ashtrays.

Dian Fossey saw the Batwa as Gorilla killers. A stigma that still follows them today. The Batwa people were keepers and protectors of the forest until the Bantu People came to the area.

The Bantu tribes were the ones who cut down the forests, cultivated and grazed their cattle on fields that have been Rainforests. The Batwa never ate Gorillas. They coexisted with Gorillas seeing them as revered beings. Gorillas that became ensnared in bushmeat traps were released. 

Walter Baumgärtel, in his book “Up Among the Mountain Gorillas,” recounts the first gorilla encounter with Reuben, his guide. They walked a trail up the mountain. Out of nowhere, a gorilla appeared and then disappeared. Then there arose a gorilla mother with a toddler. The child was curious, like all children, stopping to inspect the two people. The mother came back immediately and took her child by the hand, “gave him a pat on it back and pulled him into the forest after the dad.”

 Walter Baumgärtel wrote, “This family scene, so touchingly human, changed my feelings toward gorillas. To me, they were not animals, but family.”

Walter Baumgärtel–The Father of Gorilla Tourism in UgandaThat first encounter with Mountain Gorillas changed Walter Baumgärtel forever. He began to think of ways to protect the Mountain Gorillas through tourism. He felt that if tourists came and paid hard cash, the government would protect the Mountain Gorillas. At first, the British Colonial Government denied him that privilege, but later relented and gorilla tourism as we know it today was in its infancy.

At last, Walter Baumgärtel, by now an honorary Game Warden, received permission from the British Colonial Wildlife department, allowing him to take guests from his hotel to visit with the mountain Gorillas. The modern Gorilla tracking safari had its early beginning and his guide Reuben. Visitors were amazed by what they found and encountered, the great apes and the gentle giants of the rain forest.

Walter Baumgärtel wanted to promote tourism, which in turn would generate Visitors and income for the area. He prematurely thought that the Gorilla Tourism income would motivate the Ugandan government to protect the mountain gorillas and their habitat. He did not understand why his Conservation and tourism initiatives were relegated to a place behind politics, power struggles, and short-term financial gains. 

In 1962 Uganda gained independence, and things began to change under the first Milton Obote administration. Times started to toughen for him and his Hotel. The 1960s were a time of transition from a British Protectorate to an independent nation. Those difficulties also affected Walter Baumgärtel, his business, and his passion for the conservation and protection of Mountain Gorillas. Regular harassment by corrupt officials became the order of the day. 

The political insecurity of the 1960s forced him to sell his beloved Travellers Rest Hotel. The sale of the hotel was to provide for his old age. That fell apart when others unsuccessfully speculated with his money. 

It was on February 28, 1969, Walter Baumgärtel left Africa for good. His eyesight, which had already started to deteriorate in Uganda, faded entirely over the next few years.

Walter Baumgärtel wrote an account about his experiences in the book “Up among the Mountain Gorillas.” It was published in 1977 and became a bestseller, which was translated into various languages. He also published two radio plays for children.

Still, today it would be an excellent primer for Gorilla Trekkers about the Mountain Gorillas. Walter Baumgärtel left his marks in the places the Gorillas call their home. Parks such as Mgahinga Gorilla Park and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Walter Baumgärtel also has become an influence on others. Praveen Momam, the owner of the Mount Gahinga Walter Baumgärtel–The Father of Gorilla Tourism in Uganda Lodge, is one of them. He has stated on several occasions that Walter Baumgärtel’s pursuits in southwest Uganda in the 1960s influenced him personally. 

Walter Baumgärtel was a Gorilla Conservation and Gorilla Tourism pioneer. His concern was the survival of the mountain gorillas. He fully recognized the existing threats to their very existence and survival. 

  Walter Baumgärtel lived for almost 30 more years in Bavaria after leaving Uganda. He continued some correspondence regarding his time in Africa, Gorilla Conservation, and Tourism. 

He died on November 8, 1997, in a home for the aged in Germany. The Mountain Gorillas lost one of their first protectors. Walter Baumgärtel, Conservationist, GorillaTourism Innovators remembered by few in Uganda has left us enriching accounts in his book “Up among the Mountain Gorillas.”

Today, there are no statues, no plaques to Gorilla Tourism’s father in Uganda,   Walter Baumgärtel. Yet, he and his guide Reuben Rwazangire planted the seeds in Uganda for Gorilla Conservation and Tourism.