Dian Fossey: Guardian Angel of the rare Mountain Gorillas
The story of primatologist Dian Fossey and the mountain gorillas could be the plot of a Greek tragedy: the unconditional love of one woman for our distant cousins from the “misty forests” of Eastern Africa leads her to her death. In December 1985, she was murdered in Rwanda after having spent 18 years studying the mountain gorillas. During that time, she made many enemies by violently fighting poachers and governments. Her murder however, was never solved.
Yet, could this tragedy be turning into a fairy tale? Shortly before her death, Dian Fossey feared there would be no mountain gorillas left in 15 years time. One year after her death however, a census showed that the number of mountain gorillas had been slowly increasing. In a cruel twist of fate, the woman who devoted her life to protecting the mountain gorillas died before she could see her work finally paying off.
Mountain gorillas can only be found in the Virunga Mountains bordering Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo and in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. Human activity, poaching and civil wars are major threats to the species. Dian Fossey fell in love with the mountain gorillas during a trip to Eastern Africa in 1963 where she first encountered the great apes. It was her visit to anthropologist Louis Leakey in Tanzania that inspired her to study them, as she explains in her book Gorillas in the Mist: “I believe it was at this time the seed was planted in my head, even if unconsciously, that I would someday return to Africa to study the gorillas of the mountains.”
Three years later, in 1966, she was indeed on her way back to Africa. Under Louis Leakey’s wing, she set off on a long-term study of the mountain gorillas. In 1967, she founded the Karisoke Research Centre in Rwanda’s Virunga National Park where she spent the better part of her time in the mountains observing the gorillas. This earned her the local nickname of Nyiramachabelli, “the woman who lives alone on the mountain”. Sometimes portrayed as misanthropic and difficult to work with, she was happiest with the gorillas for which she had boundless affection and patience.
To protect them, Dian Fossey had to understand them. She soon found out that, far from the popular King Kong image of the mountain gorilla as a terrorising man-killer, they were shy and gentle giants with highly sociable traits. Their shyness made studying them a hard task. Armed with patience and determination, she managed to become accepted by several gorilla families by imitating their behaviour. She would go down on knuckles and knees, munch on celery stalks and mimic their vocalisations. She developed a special bond with Digit, a youngster who did not have any playmates his age in his group. They were drawn to each other and formed a true friendship. Tragically, ten years later, Digit was killed by poachers who severed his head and his hands to sell to the tourist trade. This threw Dian Fossey into a deep depression.
As more members of Digit’s group were killed, her war against poachers became personal. She went on a one-woman mission to protect the gorillas, by any means necessary. Her methods became more extreme as she sometimes resorted to violent interrogations of poachers and took advantage of local beliefs to scare poachers away. She led locals to believe that she was a witch and was known for wearing a gorilla mask and dancing out of the forest to scare away poachers and farmers stepping into a gorilla territory. Those methods are understandably controversial, especially since one needs to remember that this is a very poor region of the world where poachers often only kill to survive. From Dian Fossey’s point of view however, the gorillas were her family and she did everything she could to protect them. As Jane Goodall, another prominent primatologist, put it “ If Dian hadn’t done what she had, there would be no gorillas left in Rwanda to study”.
Dian Fossey changed the image of mountain gorillas forever and brought them to the world’s attention. Her work continues through the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and the Karisoke Research Foundation, which is still operating. Her research is an invaluable source of knowledge on these “gentle giants” and has built the foundation for a successful and effective ecotourism industry. While it is true that she fought the tourism industry, one can hope that she would be proud of how far it has since come. Gorilla tourism in Rwanda not only supports important conservation projects but also local economies, providing job and revenue opportunities, which in turn significantly reduces the number of poachers and incentivises local people to protect the gorillas. 31 years after Dian Fossey’s death, mountain gorillas are still roaming the slopes of the Virunga Mountains and while they remain on the endangered list, their numbers have been steadily increasing from 620 individuals in 1989 to around 880 individuals today.
If you’d like to enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing mountain gorillas in the wild, go on a Mountain Gorilla Trek in Uganda. Or, join efforts to protect gorillas on the Great Gorilla Project.