The Extraordinary Life & Brutal Murder Of Dian Fossey

Photo: Courtesy of The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International
A gorilla preening Dian Fossey
The cover of the January 1970 issue of National Geographic features a photograph of a woman walking through a verdant landscape strewn with yellow flowers. Dressed in jeans and a denim shirt, her hair is pulled back into a loose plait, revealing an almost Madonna-like expression. Her eyes are locked on those of the young gorilla she cradles in her arms.
The woman in the photo is the eminent primatologist Dian Fossey. Fifty years ago this month, she established the Karisoke Research Centre in the Virunga region of Rwanda, east Africa. There she spent 18 years living alongside critically endangered mountain gorillas, studying their behaviour and safeguarding them and their habitat from one of their closest relatives, the most destructive species on the planet: humans. During this time, she brought to light the fundamental relationship between humans and gorillas, and raised global awareness of their suffering at our hands through magazine articles, documentaries and her 1983 book Gorillas in the Mist. “The more you learn about the dignity of the gorilla,” she wrote, “the more you want to avoid people.”
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Fossey’s groundbreaking work – which contributed significantly to the continued existence of mountain gorillas – made her a feminist icon and an international emblem of the natural world. Her passion for gorilla conservation, however, became an obsession that would ultimately claim her life.
Over the decades, Fossey made many enemies. On 26th December 1985, at the age of 53, she was brutally murdered in her cabin at Karisoke, her skull shattered by a machete. There are endless theories about who the perpetrator could have been – from a government official to a former student with a grudge – but none has been proven. Her death may always remain a mystery.
Photo: Courtesy of The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International
Dian Fossey with bearers carrying her supplies to the Karisoke Research Centre
For many, Fossey will forever be immortalised in the 1988 film adaptation of Gorillas in the Mist, which starred Sigourney Weaver. The role earned Weaver her second Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, and since then she has served as honorary chair of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (formerly the Digit Fund) – the foundation Fossey established to protect the gorillas to whom she dedicated her life.
Before travelling to Rwanda to learn more about the Gorilla Fund first-hand, I spoke to Weaver over the phone from her home in New York and asked how playing Fossey informed her own conservation work. (Last October, Weaver received the Jane Alexander Global Wildlife Ambassador Award for her involvement with the Gorilla Fund.) “Dian believed that all species on the planet should have equal rights, and I feel that’s something most humans are blind to,” she said. “We think this world is ours, and that animals are there to serve us. Potentially thousands of animal species are becoming extinct every year. That should set alarm bells ringing, but until it affects us directly, man doesn’t seem to want to do anything about it.”
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Although Fossey was only three years into her field work in 1970, the National Geographic story had an immediate effect in transforming the public perception of gorillas. From the first confirmed sighting of a mountain gorilla by a European in the mid-19th century, it was a common occidental belief that these mild-mannered, herbivorous apes were ferocious animals and gratuitous killers. Photos of Fossey ensconced in a gorilla family – being preened by the adults, the infants playfully clambering over her face – quashed the erroneous theory. ”The gorilla is one of the most maligned animals in the world,” Fossey wrote in the article. ”After more than 2,000 hours of direct observation, I can account for less than five minutes of what might be called ’aggressive’ behaviour.”
Gorillas, the largest of the great apes, share 98% of their genes with humans, and are unique among non-human primates in that they live in close-knit groups. Each gorilla group is led by a dominant silverback male, which, as the name suggests, has silver hair on its back that comes with age. The mountain gorilla, one of four subspecies of gorilla, is endemic to the Virunga region, which encompasses parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda.
When Fossey arrived to study mountain gorillas in 1967, rather than following the textbook instructions of, as she put it, ”sitting and observing”, she applied a method known as habituation. It entailed years spent gradually gaining the gorillas’ trust by imitating their behaviour, until they considered her to be one of them and accepted her into the community. ”I’m an inhibited person and I felt that the gorillas were somewhat inhibited as well,” she told the BBC in a 1984 interview. “So I imitated their natural, normal behaviour like feeding, munching on celery stalks, or scratching myself.”
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Born in San Francisco in 1932, Fossey had always loved animals and took a veterinary course in college, but her first career was as an occupational therapist at a children’s hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. She had longed to visit Africa for years, then, aged 31, realising that, as she put it, “dreams seldom materialise on their own,” she took out a three-year bank loan and went on a seven-week safari through the eastern part of the continent.
While in Tanzania, she visited the renowned Kenyan archaeologist, Dr Louis Leakey, who was at that time fostering field studies of primates in their natural habitats. On 24th September 1967, with Leakey’s support and following a two-day crash course in gathering field data, Fossey established the Karisoke Research Centre and began her field study on mountain gorillas. As she later admitted in Gorillas in the Mist, no one, least of all she, could have anticipated what a seminal project this would become: “Little did I know then, that by setting up two small tents in the wilderness in the Virungas, I had launched the beginnings of what was to become an internationally renowned research station eventually to be utilised by students and scientists from many countries.”
Photo: Courtesy of The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International
Dian Fossey surrounded by a family of gorillas
Suspended between Mount Karisimbi and Mount Bisoke at an altitude of 10,000 feet, Karisoke (a portmanteau of the two dormant volcanoes’ names) sits on the edge of a meadow in the Volcanoes National Park. This enchanting forest is populated by many rare and endemic species, including the golden monkey and vibrantly coloured Ruwenzori turaco bird. Vines and Hagenia flowers cascade from the trees, and the atmosphere is so still you can almost hear the mist condensing on the leaves. It is undoubtedly the most beautiful place I have ever been.
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Today the park is meticulously monitored and protected by the government-run Rwanda Development Board (RDB). When Fossey arrived, however, it was a different story. She described vast herds of cattle grazing illegally in the forest, which in 1969 was reduced by almost 50% to 33,000 acres to allow for the cultivation of pyrethrum (a giant daisy-like plant used to make pesticides). Loss of habitat and an increase in poaching (tourists bought gorillas’ hands as souvenirs, and skeletons supplied the demands of anthropology departments at western universities) throughout the 1970s caused the gorilla population to plummet to around 250.
Seeing these majestic creatures in the wild makes it all the more unbearable to imagine a world in which they don’t exist. There is an air of anticipation when you are in the presence of a gorilla: you are captivated and aware that by simply watching them you can gain a greater understanding of humankind.
In 1980, John Fowler, then a 22-year-old undergraduate student of zoology at the University of Georgia, was selected by Fossey as part of a study-abroad programme to work at Karisoke. He is the author of the forthcoming book A Forest in the Clouds (published in February by Pegasus Books), a memoir of his year spent among the gorillas. Fowler now specialises in treatment research for people with mental illnesses. “Research of the great apes is highly regarded as relevant to understanding basic human behaviours, and qualified me to work with humans,” he tells me over the phone. “The animal brain still lies within the human brain. Observing primates like the gorilla gives us the opportunity to see the origins of our behaviours like anger, jealousy, greed, and sexual compulsion, stripped of the human facade.”
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Building on a technique developed by the pioneering American zoologist George Schaller, Fossey identified gorillas by their nose prints (like a human fingerprint, each one is distinctive), and gave them names. Of all the gorillas Fossey lived among, she formed a special kinship with one in particular. Digit (so called because one of his fingers was crooked) was marginalised by his family group as he reached adulthood. His rejection resonated with Fossey, who had always regarded herself as an outsider.
On 31st December 1977, Digit’s mutilated corpse was discovered in the forest. Poachers had hacked off his head and hands, and there were multiple spear wounds to his body. “There are times when one cannot accept facts for fear of shattering one’s being,” Fossey wrote in Gorillas in the Mist. “From that moment on, I came to live within an insulated part of myself.”
Fossey already loathed poachers, and tales of the punishments they received if she caught them are pungent and plentiful. She is known to have stripped one poacher naked, had him spread-eagled and whipped with nettle stalks. There are rumours that she hired a sorcerer to poison one, and abducted another’s children, holding them to ransom. After Digit’s murder, Fossey was consumed by seeking vengeance against poachers, which unfortunately began to overshadow her ecology work.
Sigourney Weaver researched Fossey’s character extensively prior to filming Gorillas in the Mist, and discovered a complex person with a Jekyll and Hyde nature. “I was very aware of what a responsibility it was to play a real person as unique as Dian,” she recalls. “Every time I talked to a person who worked with or knew her, they seemed to be describing a completely different person. But that’s the nature of humans, I guess – we are a lot of different people at once.”
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Weaver’s characterisation of Fossey concurs with that of Kelly Stewart, an American primatologist who worked with Fossey at Karisoke between 1973 and ’77. “Dian was incredibly courageous, but she was a mercurial person and you never knew what you were going to get from one day to the next, which made her difficult to work with,” she says. “We became good friends even though she found it hard to get close to someone. I think even before she came to the Virungas she felt let down by people – gorillas, on the other hand, didn’t let her down.”
Fossey could be especially derisive towards the Rwandan people, branding them corrupt. Shortly after Stewart arrived at Karisoke, she remembers Fossey shooting dead several cattle belonging to a local farmer because they had wandered into the park. Understanding that it was imperative for Rwandans to directly witness the benefits of conservation, the Fossey Fund’s motto today is “Helping People. Saving Gorillas.” The organisation has launched a number of educational programmes with schools and universities throughout the country, and has contributed to the construction of a library and maternity clinic in a village close to the park. Meanwhile, the Rwandan government has initiated a tourism revenue-sharing scheme, which ensures 5% of annual income from national parks is fed back into local communities.
Photo: Jane Wynyard
Liam Freeman with two park rangers from the Rwanda Development Board
When I meet the Fossey Fund’s incumbent director, Felix Ndagijimana, he describes some of the unforeseen benefits of Fossey’s work that are only now being fully realised, long after her passing. “Having studied the habituated and the non-habituated mountain gorillas as part of a census in 2010, we discovered that the habituated groups have done much better,” he says. “This is because we are monitoring them every day. So, if an individual gets sick or caught in a snare left by poachers, we can intervene immediately. These interventions have saved many of the gorillas’ lives, contributing to the significant growth in population we are seeing today.”
The work of the Fossey Fund and the Rwandan government is a conservation success story. According to the same 2010 census, the mountain gorilla population stood at 480 and is estimated to have almost doubled since then.
Though the situation has improved for the gorillas, they continue to face a very high risk of extinction in the wild. I was reminded of the species’ fragility when I stopped by the original Karisoke site. All that remains of the buildings are their foundations, but at the far end of the camp, just past the cabin Dian called home, is a glade speckled with headstones. One reads “Nyiramacibiri”, the name Rwandans gave Fossey. In the national language, Kinyarwandan, it means “the woman who lives alone in the forest”. To the left of Fossey’s grave is that of her beloved Digit, and next to him lie several other gorillas Fossey lived alongside and named. Within minutes of arriving at the graveyard, the RDB rangers who accompanied us on the hike had cleared the plots of fallen leaves. They well know, as Fossey did, the value of all life. Her legacy is admittedly multifarious, but if even some of us follow Fossey’s example, we may have a hope of preserving the future of the natural world.
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