Gorillas and Murder
Dian Fossey (January 16, 1932 – c. December 27, 1985) was an American zoologist who undertook an extensive study of gorilla groups over a period of 18 years. She studied them daily in the mountain forests of Rwanda, initially encouraged to work there by famous anthropologist Louis Leakey. She was murdered in 1985; the case remains open.
Called one of the foremost primatologists in the world while she was alive, Fossey, along with Jane Goodall and Birute Galdikas, was part of the so-called Leakey’s Angels, a group of three prominent researchers on primates (Fossey on gorillas; Goodall on chimpanzees; and Galdikas on orangutans) sent by anthropologist Louis Leakey to study great apes in their natural environments.
Fossey became friends with Mary White “Gaynee” Henry, secretary to the chief administrator at a hospital and wife of one of the doctors, Michael J. Henry. Fossey turned down an offer to join the couple on an African tour due to lack of finances, but in 1963 she borrowed $8,000 (one year’s salary), and went on a seven-week visit to Africa.
In September 1963, she arrived in Nairobi, Kenya. While there, she met actor William Holden, owner of Treetops Hotel, who introduced her to her safari guide, John Alexander. Alexander became her guide for the next seven weeks through Kenya, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zimbabwe.
Alexander’s route included visits to Tsavo, Africa’s largest national park, the saline lake of Manyara, famous for attracting giant flocks of flamingos, and the Ngorongoro Crater, well known for its abundant wildlife. The final two sites for her visit were Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania (the archeological site of Louis and Mary Leakey); and Mt. Mikeno in Congo, where in 1959, American zoologist George Schaller had carried out a year-long pioneering study of the mountain gorilla.
At Olduvai Gorge, Fossey met Leakey and his wife while they were examining the area for hominid fossils. Leakey talked to Fossey about the work of Jane Goodall and the importance of long-term research of the great apes. Although she had broken her ankle while visiting the Leakeys, by October 16, Fossey was staying in Walter Baumgartel’s small hotel in Uganda, the Travellers Rest.
Baumgartel, an advocate of gorilla conservation, was among the first to see the benefits that tourism could bring to the area, and he introduced Fossey to Kenyan wildlife photographers Joan and Alan Root. The couple agreed to allow Fossey and Alexander to camp behind their own camp, and it was during these few days that Fossey first encountered wild mountain gorillas.
After staying with friends in Rhodesia, Fossey returned home to Louisville to repay her loans. She published three articles in The Courier-Journal newspaper, detailing her visit to Africa.
When Leakey made an appearance in Louisville while on a nationwide lecture tour, Fossey took the color supplements that had appeared about her African trip in The Courier-Journal to show to Leakey, who remembered her and her interest in mountain gorillas. Three years after the original safari, Leakey suggested that Fossey could undertake a long-term study of the gorillas in the same manner as Jane Goodall had with chimpanzees in Tanzania.
Fossey began her field study at Kabara, in the Congo in early 1967. She was taught basic gorilla tracking. Living in tents on mainly tinned produce, once a month Fossey would hike down the mountain and make the two-hour drive to the village of Kikumba to restock.
Fossey identified three distinct groups of gorillas in her study area, but could not get close to them. She eventually found that mimicking their actions and making grunting sounds assured them, together with submissive behavior and eating of the local celery plant. She later attributed her success with habituating gorillas to her experience working as an occupational therapist with autistic children.
Opposed to Poaching
While poaching had been illegal in the national park of the Virunga Volcanoes in Rwanda since the 1920s, the law was rarely enforced by park conservators, who were often bribed by poachers and paid a salary less than Fossey’s own African staff.
On three occasions, Fossey wrote that she witnessed the aftermath of the capture of infant gorillas at the behest of the park conservators for zoos; since gorillas will fight to the death to protect their young, the kidnaping would often result in up to 10 adult gorillas’ deaths.
Through the Digit Fund, Fossey financed patrols to destroy poachers’ traps in the Karisoke study area. In four months in 1979, the Fossey patrol consisting of four African staffers destroyed 987 poachers’ traps in the research area’s vicinity.
She viewed the holding of animals in “prison” (zoos) for the entertainment of people as unethical.
Opposition to Tourism
Dian Fossey strongly opposed tourism, as gorillas are very susceptible to diseases by humans like the flu for which they have no immunity. Dian Fossey reported several cases in which gorillas died because of diseases spread by tourists. She also viewed tourism as an interference into their natural wild behavior. Fossey also criticized tourist programs, often paid for by international conservation organizations, for interfering with both her research and the peace of the mountain gorillas’ habitat.
Today, however, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International recognizes the importance of tourism in helping to create a stable and sustainable local community dedicated to protecting the gorillas and their habitat.
Gorilla Hands As Ashtrays
Sometime during the day on New Year’s Eve 1977, Fossey’s favorite gorilla, Digit, was killed by poachers. As the sentry of study group 4, he defended the group against six poachers and their dogs, who ran across the gorilla study group while checking antelope trap lines. Digit took five spear wounds in ferocious self-defense and managed to kill one of the poachers’ dogs, allowing the other 13 members of his group to escape. Digit was decapitated, and his hands cut off for ashtrays, for the price of $20.
After his mutilated body was discovered by research assistant Ian Redmond, Fossey’s group captured one of the killers. He revealed the names of his five accomplices, three of whom were later imprisoned.
Fossey subsequently created the Digit Fund (now the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International in the USA) to raise money for anti-poaching patrols.
In addition, a consortium of international gorilla funds arose to accept donations in light of Digit’s death and increased attention on poaching. Fossey mostly opposed the efforts of the international organizations, which she felt inefficiently directed their funds towards more equipment for Rwandan park officials, some of whom were alleged to have ordered some of the gorilla poachings in the first place.
Dian Fossey Had Her Trials But Left Good Behind Her
The last entry in her diary read: “When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.”
She was murdered. The case is still open as to who did it and why. No one is being punished for the crime. And despite some serious criticism, Dian Fossey persevered and help preserve the mountain gorilla. She, as one person, made a difference in the world. She changed it. What are you doing for your world?
Source: Wikipedia.org (Please donate to this fine resource.)
- Primates: the Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks (lemonsquashbookclub.wordpress.com)
- Gorillas in the Mist? (funinfundraising.wordpress.com)
- Mountain Gorillas in Africa (safarisrwanda.wordpress.com)