When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past
and concentrate on the preservation of the future.
~ Dian Fossey
In 1966 Dian Fossey began her foray into primatology with the help of Dr. Louis Leakey, the famous British paleoanthropologist. She packed her bags and headed to the Congo to study the elusive mountain gorillas despite her respiratory problems and minimal training in animal behavior. Fossey made leaps in the field of primatology, disproving the belief that the gorillas were largely violent by engaging in the first friendly gorilla to human contact ever recorded when Peanuts reached out tentatively and touched her hand. She became the champion of the creatures, heralding their preservation among her peers while protecting them from poachers at home. The gorillas came to accept her as a member of their group, allowing her to move amongst them freely and to play with the infants. Dian Fossey's mission to save the gorillas was a just one, however, her methods were questionable, and it is widely held that her extreme behavior in the Congo is what led to her death. Which ever side of the fence you sit on, if you believe she got what she deserved or you would gladly have done what she did in her place, there is one thing that is undeniable. Dian's murder high up in the mountains of Rwanda was a result of the very qualities that Louis Leakey believed made her the best choice for the study, her maternal instincts.
In order to understand her reactions and her actions, we must do a little leg work and discover Dian's journey, the path that led to her burial on the side of a mountain. You need to understand what led her to Leakey and how driven she truly was. You need to know Dian.
In 1963 Dian, already in love with the idea of traveling to Africa and seeing animals in their still wild environment, read The Year of the Gorilla, by American zoologist George Schaller. In her mind she followed him on his pioneering study of the mountain gorillas in the Belgian Congo. Dian was so excited by the possibilities that were forming after reading the book that she extended her already booked trip to Africa two extra weeks and vowed to see the Virgunga volcanoes, home of the gorillas. Nothing was going to stop her, not her lack of funds, not her health and certainly not her "incompetant" field guide. She managed to fight her way through Africa and up the mountain on a twisted ankle. Two days after camping on Mt. Mikeno she had her first encounter with the gorillas, a moment that would change her life forever.
We all froze where we stood hip deep in a soaking-wet bed of stinking nettles surrounded by a seemingly impenetrable wall of foliage. For a minute the chill, fog-dripping forest was unbelievably silent, then it was rent by even more ferocious screams punctuated by thunderous, drumlike tattoos. Once more we froze until the forest was hushed.
We could see only a few feet into the lush, green mass, but Sanweke now very carefully and almost silently began cutting a window through it with his panga bush knife. Alan motioned me forward and I crept to his side, both of us stooping low. He pointed, and I peered through the opening. There they were: the devilmen of native stories; the basis of the King Kong myth; the last of the Mountain Kings of Africa.
Dian Fossey came face to face with six adult
shadows looming in green vegetation
. She described them as being hesitant, unsure as to whether bi-pedal creatures whom had just emerged from the foliage were threats or not; unsure as to whether they were safe or should run. As they stared at the animals, each contemplating the other, Manual, the groups cookboy, whispered in Swahili
a phrase that Dian felt echoed what she was feeling exactly. "Surely, God, these are my kin
After returning home Dian went back to her life of working at the Korsair Children's Hospital and exploring romantic relationships that just didn't seem to work out. She didn't abandon her interest in the gorillas, however. Rather she gave slide shows of her trip for a small fee, attempted to sell the 16mm footage of the safari to the television program Bold Journey all the while trying to interest National Geographic in her still pictures and writing several articles to sell to magazines. In one of her articles, I Photographed the Mountain Gorilla, she expressed her "deep concern" for the future of the mountain gorillas. Dian feared that the "newly independent Congo" would forget about the gentle giants as it looked for ways to populate the untouched mountains and boost the economy.
The Lousiville Courier was the only taker for her articles, and they published them in their weekend color supplement. Realizing that the more widely dispersed magazines weren't going to publish her articles because she wasn't meeting their professional writing standards, she enrolled in a writing improvement class. She desperately wanted to spread the story of the gorillas and her adventures in Africa. She also wanted to generate some income that might help pay for the large debt the trip had incurred. Most of all she wanted to find a way to help them in what she had already begun to see as a bad situation. Echoing in her mind, spearing her onward, was one question:
How much longer will they continue to thrive...?
Three years after her trip to Africa, where she first met him at Olduvai Gorge, Louis Leakey came back into her world. He was on a lecture tour that happened to be coming to Louisville. Dian grabbed her articles and set out to see him. At the end of his lecture she stood before him and he smiled, recognizing her and remembering her name after all those years. She impressed him with her earnest desire to study animals, her interest in the gorillas in particular caught his attention. His last words to her that evening would alter the course of her life and make way for her many discoveries and her eventual downfall. Smiling at her, Leakey said, "You might be just the person I have in mind to start a long-term study of gorillas."
Leakey's choice to send Dian to study the gorillas wasn't entirely spurred by her intensity in the matter, but also by his firm belief "that women made for better field students of animals than men." It was the maternal instinct, the patience of motherhood and the seemingly never ending pool of care that he felt women provided that he was hoping to send to the Congo; just as he had sent it to the chimpanzees in the form of Jane Goodall. Knowing so little of Dian, her upbringing, and her life in general, he couldn't have known that she would in fact turn out to be impatient and obsessively driven by her love of the mountain gorillas.
After many months of waiting and wondering if it was really going to happen, Dian began her journey to Africa in December of 1966. She didn't go directly, she had to stop and meet her National Geographic benefactors first, and they weren't overly impressed with her. Having contracted pneumonia again, Dian presented a poor visage to those expecting her to be an outdoorsy adventurer planning to take on wildlife. They contacted Leakey doubtful of her abilities, not the last complaint about Dian's competence he'd hear, but Dian went on as scheduled, entering the Congo during a dangerous time. The province she'd be traveling in was in a constant state of revolt, the government lax in its treatment of foreigners, Dian pushed forward undaunted. With Alan Root, a temporary and disapproving addition to her entourage, and several local hires in tow Dian trekked up the mountain. Alan aided her in setting up camp, gave her a much needed lesson in tracking gorillas and left two days later.
Dian vs the people
Two months after making camp Dian had her first encounter with poachers. In Virunga the pygmy Batwapeople made up the primary source of poaching, they hunted using snares, spears and bows and arrows. Even though it was forbidden in the park they would risk it to track and kill the forest antelope.
In an attempt to locate gorilla, Sanweke and I descended the eastern side of the volcano in an area that turned into rain forest and was filled with Batwa hunters. We met four of them in the deepest, darkest park of the forest, and while Sanweke held his gun on them, I took their spears and pangas. Sanweke intended to march them out of the forest to the nearest village, but one by one they slipped away from him because I couldn't keep up and he had to keep his eye on me. That was easily the most horrible day of my life.
This encounter with the Batwa pygmies in Virunga would be one of her more brief and less intensive exchanges with poachers. She was still bonding with the gorillas and had yet to witness the horrors
that awaited her. Fortunately governmental unrest in the Congo had Dian packed and heading into Rwanda after much back and forth with the authorities and some Congolese soldiers. It is rumoured
that Dian was the victim
of a gang rape
during this time, something that would surely explain her intense dislike of the Congolese afterward, but it has never been confirmed and Dian herself vehemently denied it.
Now in a country roughly the size of Maryland with five million people jammed into it, Dian was determined to start anew, hoping to have a new camp set before meeting with Leaky again after the trouble in the Congo. She met Rosamond Carr, an American expatriot who grew flowers for a living in Rwanda, and requested the use of her plantation as the site. Despite everyone's insistance that the gorillas didn't come over on this side of the mountains, Dian stuck by her firm belief that they did and so once again, with porters in tow, trekked up into the depths of Mt. Karasimbi. The Rwanda park was no safer from poachers than the Congo, and Dian was constantly running across and destroying traps.
After establishing her camp, which she would name Karisoke, Dian had another encounter with the Batwa poachers when two walked right through her camp carrying their gear and offering to show her to a group of gorillas they had just spotted. A moment of turmoil over whether to just run them off or to accept their offer was ended by her desire to see the gorillas again, and she followed them to the spot. Dian informed the poachers that after this under no uncertain terms were they to return to her part of the park for poaching. For a people who had roamed the slopes of the Virunga mountains for as far back as they could remember, this announcement was surely unbelievable.
The Batwa are poachers pure and simple. They set their snares everywhere for the antelope and hyrax, and that's bad enough, God knows, but they often end up catching gorillas too....And we both know some poachers deliberately kill gorillas and make souvenir ashtrays out of their dried hands to sell to the horrid tourist trade, and sell skulls and heads to the so called sportsmen who want African trophies for their rec rooms. Poachers catch baby gorillas for sale to zoos too. There has to be strict enforcement of the park laws or there won't be any gorillas left..
A trained anthropologist
would have disliked the practices of the Batwa people, may have even spoken to Park Rangers
and rallied the local
authorities about stepping up security and enforcing the rules, but would not have directly interfered. The Batwa depend on the game
they catch, and since thier people have inhabited the Virunga Mountains for hundreds of years, have a cultural claim
times and new laws have a hard time overlooking. The fact that those who had lived in Rwanda for years before Dian came along were trying to dissuade her from interfering, trying to make her see this, would have made a trained anthropologist pause despite their personal feelings. Even the authorities over-looked the Batwa's poaching to an extent, knowing their culture
depended on hunting to survive
. Dian, having not studied anthropology
and having not learned the basic
lessons even a begining cultural class would teach, did not grasp this. Though she did come to realize, after some discussion with close friends, "that very few people placed the same paramount priority on the survival of the gorillas that she did." Instead her interference only escalated over the years.
When Dian came across an empty poacher's camp she quickly set about destroying it. She broke apart bamboo that would be used to set snares, took some fresh game and bribed an African with it in exchange for help destroying the camp, tossed bags of millet "to the four wind," and stole rope and chungas. Her destruction and thievery at the camp site caused a heated argument between her and a good friend. Dian, who believed that she was doing the right thing in the end, even came to agree with her friend, stating in her journal:
...the country African living on the fringes of a park area has little alternative but to turn to poaching for his livelihood. But at the same time, why should one condone a man if he openly breaks the law - why shouldn't you take what ever action you can against him...If I can enforce the written rules of a supposedly protected park against the slaughter of animals, then I must do it.
And do it, she did. As time
wore on and her first year ended and her second began Dian did end up turning to the ministry
for help. The result of her persistence
were a promise in an increase in park guard patrols
and an arrangement in which she could call upon the guards for assistance driving cattle
out of the park. Not that they were helpful, as the guards rarely stayed in the park and after the minister had an altercation
with some herdsmen
he let things slide again.
On occassion the authorities did more than turn a blind eye to the poaching. In 1969 Dian got an urgent message from a friend stating that a young gorilla had been captured by poachers. She discovered it was at the behest of the park administrator who had been offered money by some Germans to capture two for a zoo in Cologne. The price for the capture of this one infant, who was not well after having been starved and mistreated for several weeks, was the death of his entire family group. Ten gorillas massacred all in the name of public display. Knowing the gorilla wouldn't survive if left with them, Dian made a deal so that she could nurse it back to health. Bundling the infant, whom she would name Coco, she set off for camp to do just that. She took a rare break from her field work to nurse Coco as well as Pucker, a second gorilla caught for the Cologne zoo some weeks later.
It was during this time that Leakey was truly proven right in his choice of Dian for the study. He had wanted to send all the attributes of motherhood to the Congo, to the gorillas, and here she was putting aside her pen and paper, her obsession with learning all she could in the field and accumulating observation hours in order to be a foster mother to the two orphans. She was drawing on her patience and her "endless pool of care" to nurse them, and all of the data she collected during this time would be one of a kind as well. Something her benefactors would drool over when they got their hands on it. Despite her attempts to keep the gorillas in the park and attempt to reintroduce them to the wild, they were sent off to Cologne four months later. Sadly the gorillas died nine years later, in their cages at the zoo, within one month of each other.
Dian's close relationship with the two infants served as a great asset in her field work. She was able to use noises and gestures made by Coco and Pucker to get closer to Peanut, with whom she would make her first physical contact.
In May of 1970 an incident took place that brought out a terrifying anger in Dian. A buffalo had gotten wedged in a tree, instead of freeing it the Tutsi herders chopped the meat off the bellowing buffalo. When Dian came across the still live bull it was attempting to escape it's confines pitifully. She put it out of its misery, but something changed in her that day.
Killing that poor animal has done something to me that I didn't think possible, for now I am finding myself out to avenge the cruelty of the Tutsi by crippling their cattle with bullets.
Her actions of shooting the cattle in the hind legs, crippling the poor beasts, was no better than what the herdsmen did in the first place, and she knew it. However she felt justified
and when the cattle began disappearing from her area of the park she was satisfied as well. Her act of angry vengeance
no doubt won her one more enemy in Rwanda, the herdsmen now resenting her presence as much as the poachers.
Later that year, in November, five adult gorillas were killed just outside the park boundary. Although they didn't belong to any of her study groups Dian was devastated by the news. That there were no infants among the dead had her concluding they had been killed for the purpose of securing infants for another zoo. She was furiously writting letters to the park administrator accusing him of being behind another slaughter and threatening public exposure. Letters were also sent to the Director of Tourism and National Parks and every conservation organization she could think of. Frustrated that after weeks of trying to find out who had killed the gorillas her search was fruitless, she developed a network of informants that would keep her abreast of all illegal animal trafficking in the area.
Early in 1972, after some emotionally, as well as physically, draining medical problems Dian had another encounter with the herdsmen. She awoke to find cows all over her camp, and in a foul mood shot one dead. The Tutsi herders thought her mad, and feared she would shoot them as well when they came to cart the corpse away. It was around this time that she began putting on black magic shows for the herdsmen and poachers her men caught. Complete with masks and fire demonstrations she terrified the natives, and earned the reputation of being an evil witch.
This behavior of hers went on and finally erupted when poachers killed Dian's favorite gorilla, Digit, in 1977. She continued with her work, continued burning the shelters of poacher camps, destroying their traps, frightening them with her black magic charades through the years. In 1985 this all came to an end when a research assistant, Wayne McGuire, found her body laying on the floor, her skull "split diagonally from forehead to nose and down one cheek to the corner of her mouth." She was buried on the mountain with other friends, who had been murdered over the years: Digit, Macho, Uncle Bert, Kweli, Nunkie and more. Each a gorilla that had been taken by poachers, each one of Dian's children in the mists.
The good things are never free
Leakey had sent a woman to Africa to study the gorillas, he had sent his vision of a mothering spirit that would pay attention to detail, care for the subjects and never give up. And that is what he got for his tireless efforts raising money to keep her there, to keep the study thriving until her own notoriety gained her access to whatever she needed without his help. Each of the virtues that kept Dian in those mountains all those years, often with great personal loss, caused her to be resented, even hated by many in Rwanda, and eventually led to her violent death; whether at the hands of poachers, herdsmen or someone within the government, at least that much we can be assured of.
Woman in the Mists, Farley Mowat, Warner Books Inc., 1987.
Gorillas in the Mist, Dian Fossey,
The research for this essay has done more than open my eyes to a complicated and passionate woman whom I will be noding later, it has caused me to dislike one of my favorite movies, Gorillas in the Mist. In attempting to watch the movie tonight, I right away felt the wrongness of it. It does not portray her or the facts correctly. But that is for another node...