Photograph Courtesy of Philip Greenspun

Dian Fossey and the Gorillas of the Virunga Volcanoes

She 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.

First Contact

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 "Lily."

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.

This 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 at all."

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 of them."

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 gorillas.

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...

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Copyright Lee Krystek 2002. All Rights Reserved.


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