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Max-Walter Baumgärtel Is Dead

Max-Walter Baumgärtel Is Dead


With Walter Baumgärtel died a pioneer whose concern was the survival of the mountain gorillas. When he saw them for the first time and recognized the threat to their survival, he developed a concept for their conservation. He realized that it was only possible to protect the gorillas effectively by conserving their habitat. His idea was simply to promote tourism, which would generate foreign exchange and which would then motivate the government to protect the mountain gorillas and their habitat. He was not alone with this idea; for example, at about the same time, Bernhard Grzimek was also trying to achieve the same goal with the establishment and the extension of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

The center of Baumgärtel’s endeavours was a hotel called Travellers Rest. Visitors included not only tourists, but also scientists who studied the gorillas and who worked towards their conservation. The Travellers Rest developed into a base that was used by George Schaller, Bernhard Grzimek, Raymond Dart and Dian Fossey, among many others. The significance of the place becomes clear in Dian Fossey’s words:

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 was born in Delitzsch, December 22, 1902. After school he started an apprenticeship as a bookbinder. His job as a bookseller did not satisfy him, and so he took drama lessons. He had engagements with reputable theaters in Germany. While studying the classics, his longing grew to see the remote countries he had read about. His first big journey led him through various Mediterranean countries and East Africa to Sri Lanka and Malaysia. In 1927, he started a journey to Cape Town, where he stayed until 1955. He earned his living in South Africa by running a shop that sold photographs and musical instruments, and he also worked as a free-lance photographer. In the Second World War he was a photographer in reconnaissance planes for the British. After the war he stayed in Florence for some time.

During a visit to London he learnt about a post in a hotel at the foot of the Kilimanjaro in Arusha, Tanzania. Happily he seized the opportunity to return to Africa at the beginning of the 1950s. However, discontentment urged him to look for an opportunity to start his own business in 1955. He got his chance in Uganda by taking over a hotel called Travellers Rest in Kisoro at the foot of the Virunga Volcanoes. This was the beginning of the most satisfying and probably happiest time of his life. During that time he wrote his first book König in Gorillaland (King in Gorilla Land) which was published in 1960.

Political insecurity towards the end of the 1960s forced him to sell his beloved Travellers Rest in 1969 with a heavy heart, leaving the gorillas to their uncertain fate. He had meant to provide for his old age with the sale, but because others speculated unsuccessfully, this fell through. On February 28, 1969, Walter Baumgärtel left Africa for good and returned to Germany. His eyesight, which had already started to deteriorate in Uganda, faded completely. In spite of this, he was able to report about his experiences in the book Unter Gorillas (Among Gorillas). It was published in 1977 and became a bestseller which was translated into several languages – including, for example, Japanese. He also published two radio plays for children.

Blind and poor, Walter Baumgärtel lived for almost 30 more years in homes for the aged, first in Oberaudorf and later in Brannenburg (Germany). Despite his blindness he derived strength from his interest in current world affairs as well as from the recollections of his rich and satisfied life.

On November 8, 1997, the gorillas lost one of their first protectors.

Source: Paul-Hermann Bürgel and Manfred Hartwig

Paul-Hermann Bürgel is one of the founders of Berggorilla Patenschaft and co-author of the book Bei den Berggorillas. He had contact to Walter Baumgärtel for several years.

Manfred Hartwig is one of the founders of Berggorilla Patenschaft and co-author of Bei den Berggorillas. He met Walter Baumgärtel a few years before his death.

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