Bob Campbell’s Historic Mountain Gorilla Photographs at Karisoke, Rwanda

Photograph of Man leaning against tree petting dog. Two small gorillas are behind him.
Submitted by Dan Reboussin, Ph.D., African Studies Curator

Today with enough money, time, and stamina (to climb its steep muddy slopes), nearly anyone can visit the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. Hire an official guide, and you can make your way through the densely forested Virunga Mountains to sit with a group of critically endangered mountain gorillas. It is a magical experience, documented by thousands of mobile phone photographs online. The substantial fees, importantly, support heroic and successful conservation efforts to assure these magnificent animals’ survival. However, if you cannot make the expedition yourself, consider visiting the Florida Museum exhibit this summer to see some of the first-ever photographs taken of mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. The historic photographs on display counter sensationalistic, fictional images like King Kong with realistic depictions of these gentle social creatures, then as now under threat of extinction, though their numbers have since grown.

Bob Campbell (1930-2014) arrived at Dian Fossey’s Karisoke Research Center in 1968. Tasked with photographing furtive, jet-black gorillas in dense foliage, he found his work nearly impossible given the color film and lens technology then available. To capture publishable pictures, he convinced Fossey to approach the powerful but shy 400+ pound animals more closely. Their efforts resulted in the first documented, peaceful contact between a human and a gorilla: in January 1970, adult male Peanuts reached out and touched Fossey’s hand. National Geographic magazine featured Campbell’s images of Dian and Peanuts in the January 1970 cover story. Campbell’s original slide transparencies from that moment, when I first saw them, literally raised goosebumps on my arms. More important for IFAS Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Department and related UF academic programs are hundreds of the photographer’s shots documenting Fossey’s early efforts to implement her concept of “active conservation.” Rounding out the collection are images of agricultural encroachment on park areas; natural tree, plant, and animal species present on the research site; and scenes of everyday life while conducting research in the Virungas, work with Rwandan staff and local residents, provisioning the camp, and training student assistants.

Photography slide of Dian Fossey with dog Cindy sitting on a blanket near a pile of vertically stacked logs
Slide of Dian Fossey with dog Cindy

Featured images are from the Bob Campbell Papers (MSS 0345), which includes 15,500 photographic slides and related materials generously donated to the Libraries in 2015 by Heather Campbell of Nairobi, Kenya. An online version of the exhibit presented at the University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries, September 18 – December 15, 2017, Bob Campbell’s Photographs of Dian Fossey’s Karisoke Research Center, 1968-1972 is available online at the Smathers Libraries exhibits page. About 2,500 of Campbell’s wildlife images from Karisoke and elsewhere are available at UFDC. Critical support from the Dr. Madelyn M. Lockhart Book Fund in African Studies and the Center for African Studies Title VI NRC grant made possible the accession of this collection as well as its digitization.

The Florida Museum of Natural History exhibit opened on July 24, 2019.

1 Comment

  1. […] Take a look at the UF Smathers Libraries Special and Area Studies Collections blog entry in support of current Florida Museum exhibit. It has been a great collaboration: Bob Campbell’s Historic Mountain Gorilla Photographs at Karisoke, Rwanda. […]

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