Dian Fossey and the Gorillas
of the Virunga Volcanoes
saw her gorillas being driven to extinction, and started a war...
"Another bothersome tourist," Dr.
Louis Leakey grumbled to himself. The American woman wanted
to tour Dr. Leakey's excavation at Olduvia. Leakey was by then
one of the most well-known paleoanthropologists in the world.
In 1959, with his wife, Mary, he'd discovered the remains of Zinjanthropus,
and a year later Homo habilis, both thought to be early
relatives of human beings. By 1963 he was much to busy to be giving
tours of his digs, even to the tall, attractive American woman
with the dark hair.
Still, Leakey obliged, charging the woman 14 shillings
to look around. He had just uncovered an important giraffe fossil.
In her enthusiasm to look at it, the woman slipped coming down
a steep slope, fell into the excavation, sprained her ankle and
damaged the valuable specimen. For good measure, the pain from
the ankle made the woman vomit on the fossil. This is how Louis
Leakey came to meet Dian Fossey.
Dian Fossey was born in 1932. Her childhood was
difficult. She was the only child of George and Kitty Fossey.
Her father drank heavily, causing a divorce when Dian was only
three. She saw little of him afterwards. When Dian was five her
mother married Richard Price. Price did not treat his new step-daughter
well. He had her eat dinner in the kitchen with the housekeeper
until she was ten. When she went to college, he financed little
of her education.
Dian Fossey was trained as an occupational therapist
and found a job at the Kosair Children's Hospital in Kentucky.
She seemed to be able to communicate with the disabled children
in ways others could not. Though she loved her job, she had a
desire to see more of the world, so she borrowed against her next
three-years earnings to finance a trip to Africa. Of particular
interest to her was the excavations at Olduvia and the mountain
gorillas of the Virunga Volcanoes of Central Africa.
The Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla Gorilla Beringe)
was unknown until 1902 when a German, Captain von Beringe, observed
some tall "man-like" apes in what is now modern Rwanda. Little
was known about them until naturalist George Schaller spent
a year studying the animals in 1959-1960. Schaller's book, The
Year of the Gorilla, changed the notion of the largest of
apes from "King Kong monsters" to "amiable vegetarians" that lived
in small, cohesive family groups.
Even after injuring her ankle, Fossey was determined
to go on with her plans to see the great apes of the Virunga.
Mary Leakey bandaged her up and Fossey headed off to the
mountains. Two weeks later, she staggered up a 10,000-foot volcano
and got the first glimpse of the gentle giants that were to occupy
most of her life.
"Peeking through the vegetation, we could distinguish
an equally curious phallax of black, leather-countenanced, furry-headed
primates peering back at us," Fossey wrote later in her book Gorillas
in the Mist. "Their bright eyes darted nervously from under
heavy brows as though trying to identify us as familiar friends
or possible foes. Immediately I was struck by the physical magnificence
of the huge jet-black bodies blended against the green palette
wash of the thick forest foliage."
Fossey returned to Kentucky where she wrote several
articles for the Louisville Courier-Journal about her experiences
with the gorillas of the Virunga. In 1966 when Louis Leakey stopped
at Louisville on a speaking tour, he met with Fossey again. Leakey
told Fossey that he believed long-term studies of the great apes
were an important key to understanding the behavior of the primate
fossils he'd been digging up. Towards this end he had talked Jane
Goodall into studying the chimpanzees of Gombe several years
before. Now he was looking for someone to take on a long-term
study of the Mountain Gorillas. Would Dian be interested?
Fossey had no formal training in studying animal
behavior. However, Leakey was less interested in her academic
credentials than in her determination to see the job through until
the end. Fossey had determination to spare. After she agreed to
do the study on the gorillas, Leakey told her that he would secure
the necessary funding. He also suggested, jokingly, that she have
her appendix removed as a precaution since she would be working
so far away from medical help. Later Leakey sent a letter to tell
her he wasn't serious about her appendix, but it was too late.
Fossey had already undergone the surgery.
Against her parents wishes, Fossey left for Africa
in late 1966. She spent the first few days with Jane Goodall at
Gombe to study her methods, then went to Nairobi where Leakey
helped her obtain the supplies for her jungle camp. This included
two tents and a used LandRover that was christened with the name
The Congo Camp
Experienced field photographer Alan Root
agreed to accompany her to her Congo base and assist in setting
up camp. While he was still there, she attempted to follow a gorilla
trail through the forest. After tracing it for five minutes she
was surprised to find that Root was no longer with her. Returning
to where she'd picked up the trail, she found Root waiting for
her. "Dian," he said, "if you are ever going to contact gorillas,
you must follow their tracks to where they are going, rather than
backtrack trails to where they've been."
Root stayed with Fossey for two days. When he left,
Fossey later wrote, "I clung on to my tent pole simply to avoid
running after him."
The jungles that line the hills of the Virunga Volcanoes
are cold, dark and muddy. The region is shared by the countries
of Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo. Over 67 inches of rain fall each
year in those mountains. Storms that produce hail stones large
enough to dent tin roofs are frequent. The 45-degree slopes are
tangled with thick vegetation including nettles that deliver a
painful sting even through multiple layers of clothing.
Conditions were extra difficult for Fossey. She
had been an asthmatic child and she smoked. The thin air at the
10,000-foot elevation of her camp often left her gasping for breath.
Those first few days on the mountain were intensely lonely for
Fossey. The only two other human beings there were her two African
employees whose language she did not speak (Soon after the camp
was set up, she thought her cook was announcing plans to murder
her, when he was only inquiring if she wanted some hot water).
Her determination saw her through, however, and
she was soon at work tracking the great apes. First ,she adopted
the strategy of sneaking up silently on them and quietly observing.
Later, though, she changed her approach by announcing her presence
to the gorillas by imitating their sounds. After six months she
was able to approach some of the groups as close as thirty feet.
Flight from the Congo
Then one day her research came to a sudden end.
The rebel leader Moise Tshombe took control of the Kisangani and
Bukavu regions and the eastern end of the Congo came under threat.
The park director sent soldiers up the mountain to Fossey's camp
with orders for her to leave.
Fossey packed up her Landrover and after being detained
for several weeks, headed for the border. Though she was scared,
she managed to make it out of the country through a closed border
by bribing the guards. Even though the episode had been frightening,
within two weeks she was preparing to return to the Virunga Volcanoes.
time she placed her camp on the Rwandan side of the mountains,
but only five miles from the border through which she had so recently
escaped. Leakey was criticized for letting her return after such
a close call, but wrote to Fossey, "If people like you and me
and Jane and others, whose work takes them into strange places,
put our personal safety first we would never get any work done
It took a long time for Fossey to get the Rwandan
gorillas used to her presence. The animals in the Congo had known
George Schaller and accepted him coming close to them. In Rwanda
the animals were more wary. Fossey carefully eased her way into
their lives, approaching them on hands and knees and trying to
say in gorilla etiquette "I am here and I am harmless." This worked
well, but took time. Pushing the gorillas too hard could cause
them to respond in fear.
Once Bob Campbell, a National Geographic
photographer, suggested that Fossey sneak up on a group of gorillas
so that he could get a picture of them with Fossey in the frame.
She came within forty feet of them when the leader of the group,
who Fossey had named Rafiki, charged at her. Four other gorillas
followed. They charged and screamed at Fossey in a terrifying
display for half an hour as she sat with her back to them, pretending
to feed. The noise was deafening. Eventually the group moved off,
but Fossey was shocked that a group of gorillas that had been
so friendly to her could so quickly change.
Bonding with the Apes
As time went on Fossey began to find just the right
mix of aggressiveness and aversion necessary to get close to the
animals without frightening them. As she was sitting among them
one day, a young male she'd named Peanuts came over and touched
her. Campbell caught the encounter on film and later said the
experience for Fossey was "almost overwhelming."
After that it was difficult for Fossey to just be
a dispassionate academic observer. Several of the gorillas got
used to being in very close contact with her. An adult female
named Macho would come over and gaze into Fossey's eyes. Digit,
a young male, and Fossey's favorite, would play with her hair
or gently whack her with leaves. She wrote Leakey, "I just about
burst open with happiness every time I get within 1 or 2 feet
Fossey left her gorillas in 1970 to enroll in Cambridge
and get her academic credentials. She didn't like it there. "I
hate it here because it isn't Africa," she wrote to Leakey after
the first semester. She stuck it out though because she realized
that getting her Ph.D. was key to receiving the grants necessary
to continue her gorilla studies in the field.
The life of mountain gorillas was recorded in detail
by Fossey. The group is usually a tightly-knit family consisting
of an adult male leader, his adult brother, or nephew, and a few
adult females and their children. They move and feed together,
rarely separated by more then a hundred feet. The children are
treated very tenderly by even the largest of males. The adult
males are often referred to as "silverbacks" because the fur on
the back turns gray as they grow older.
Gorilla families rarely interact with other neighboring
groups except to occasionally transfer maturing females back and
forth. Sometimes the exchange is not voluntary. A silverback may
"raid" a neighboring family to obtain females.
Fossey was moved to name the lead silverback in
one group "Uncle Bert" after beloved uncle Albert Chapin. Chapin
was one of the few adults, along with his wife, who had really
cared for Fossey when she was young. Perhaps Fossey found in this
family of shy, gentle primates a tenderness and cohesion that
she never known herself while she was growing up.
Her close relationship with the animals can be illustrated
in an incident in 1976. Fossey was depressed. She had been spending
less and less time in the field and more time back at her camp
doing paperwork. This was partly because she now had graduate
students working for her to observe the animals, but mostly because
her health was failing. Her legs were weak and she had hairline
fractures on her feet that made walking to have daily contact
with the animals impossible.
Even so, one day she ventured out to find them.
They were huddled together against the rain. She decided not to
get too close, fearing that her interaction with them might make
them less wary of poachers. Sitting there watching them she felt
cold and alone in the dark, misty jungle.
Suddenly a comforting arm encircled her. She looked
up to see Digit's warm, gentle, brown eyes. He patted her head,
and they sat side by side cuddling against the rain.
Though animals of the Virunga Volcanoes were protected
by national parks, poaching became an increasing problem as time
when on. Fossey was constantly clearing snares and traps from
the area. While most of the traps were set with the intention
of capturing antelope for food, they would occasionally ensnare
Fossey learned to hate poaching when she found a
bull buffalo caught in the trunk of a tree. It was bellowing in
pain. Poachers had discovered the trapped creature and, while
it was still living, hacked off its hind legs for the meat. Fossey
was in tears as she shot the beast to put it out of its misery.
Fossey loved animals of every type, but unfortunately she lived
in a land where animals were valued mostly as food or skins.
The poachers soon learned that there was money to
be made by selling to Westerners gorilla heads and hands for trophies.
More money could be made by supplying zoos with gorilla babies
for exhibition. This last activity was especially damaging to
the gorillas populations. Gorillas families would fight to the
death to protect their young and often a whole group would be
destroyed to obtain one youngster.
When Fossey arrived in Africa in 1966 there had
been an estimated 480 mountain gorillas left in the park. Poaching
and encroachment were slowly causing their numbers to dwindle.
She felt that unless something was done, the animals would face
extinction very soon. She was terrified for her gorillas.
War on Poachers
Her fear was justified. On New Years Day, 1978,
they found the body of Digit. He had died defending his family
against poachers. His killers had hacked off his hands and head.
Six months later the ape she had named Uncle Bert was also killed.
Poachers got several other members of Bert's group too. Fossey
buried the bodies in a cemetery she built by her camp.
After this Fossey declared war on the poachers.
She organized anti-poaching patrols and placed bounties on poachers
heads. She killed their cattle if it strayed onto park land. She
burned their houses. She began to require her students to carry
guns. She called this "active conservation," but others began
to claim that what Fossey was running a war rather than a research
camp. The truth was that she was running a war. Dian Fossey
and the gorillas against the poachers.
Fossey began to circulate stories that she was a
sorceress who could curse her enemies. There were rumors she tortured
poachers if she caught them. Meanwhile, people in the West began
to wonder if she was insane.
The tension around her camp became so high that
Fossey was forced to leave Rwanda in 1981 not to return until
1983. Despite this cooling off period, Fossey was found murdered
in her cabin on December 26th, 1985. She was buried in the cemetery
next to her beloved gorillas. Her killer, probably a poacher,
was never found.
Was Fossey right to take the anti-poaching campaign
into her own hands? Her critics argue that she was too close to
the gorillas, too emotionally involved with them to be a good
conservationist. Certainly the gorilla population is under threat
even today, though a lucrative program of gorilla tourism has
done much in recent years to improve Rwanda's policy toward the
great apes' conservation.
One thing is certain, however. As it says on the
marker at Dian Fossey's grave:
Dian Fossey 1932-1985
No one loved gorillas more...
to Virtual Exploration Society
Lee Krystek 2002. All Rights Reserved.