Craig Sholley could have died at the hands of a gorilla. Once, he was tracking a group of them in a rainforest in Africa when a 200kg male turned on him, knocking him over and slamming his fist down beside his head.

“He could have killed me, but what he did was a reprimand, which is indicative of what gorillas are about,” says the 63-year-old vice-president of philanthropy and marketing for the African Wildlife Foundation. “They’re gentle giants.”

From next February, the wildlife biologist with more than four decades of experience, together with safari vacation specialists A2A Safaris, will offer his expertise to travellers trekking through the mountainous rainforests in the famous Volcanoes national park in Rwanda, Africa, where more than 400 gorillas roam.

Sholley’s study of mountain gorillas started with a research stint with the late primatologist Dian Fossey.

Sholley found his way to Africa in his early 20s as a science teacher with the US Peace Corps. Several years
later, he had the good fortune to join a research team assembled by the late, great primatologist Dian Fossey, author of the bestseller Gorillas in the Mist. From there, he embarked on a career studying mountain gorillas in  Rwanda.

“(Dian) had been living in the mountains alone for a long time,” he recalls. “I think she believed the mountains and gorillas were hers.” Fossey was mysteriously murdered in 1985, but left behind a legacy including the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and the International Primate Protection League.

The conservation efforts put in place by Fossey have led to an increase in the population of mountain gorillas, despite a decline in the numbers of other great apes like the chimpanzee and bonobo across Central Africa.

Tourism to Rwanda has also played a big hand in safeguarding the endangered species, as it is one of three countries in Africa where tourists can safely get up close with gorillas. Permit fees for gorilla trekking can run as high as $750 an hour. It is no wonder that travel and tourism in the landlocked country is a multi-million-dollar industry, according to a Euromonitor International report last year.

Sholley notes: “If it were not for the tourism industry, a lot of these forests which gorillas inhabit would have been destroyed 10 or 20 years ago.”