For true primate lovers, visiting the grave of Dian Fossey and the Karisoke Research Centre is a great way to pay homage to the great primatologist…
The 1970s, 80s and 90s were dark years for large primates in Africa. Gorillas and chimpanzees had faced intense conflict and poaching from humans. However, thanks to the work of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, under the guidance of Dr. Louis Leakey, people’s perspective on the large primates has changed. After the success of Goodall’s efforts with chimpanzees in Gombe Tanzania, Leakey felt that a similar study needed to be carried out with mountain gorillas within the Virunga region and orangutans in Indonesia. Goodall’s love for chimpanzees enabled her to study and learn complex behaviour from the primates. She discovered that chimpanzees lived in complex societies and had several traits that included waging war with neighbouring rivals. She also succeeded in illustrating how compassionate, loving and inventive chimpanzees could be. Goodall’s success along with Leakey’s encouragement led Dian Fossey to become a primatologist and she became an authority in all things related to mountain gorillas.
Early life of Dian Fossey
Dian Fossey was born in California in 1932 and later lived with a strict stepfather who was a businessman. She never knew what it meant to grow up in a loving and caring family setting, which might have explained her often isolated lifestyle while working in Africa. The emotional support she lacked at home contributed to her love for animals, leading to her enrollment for a pre-veterinary course at the age of 19 at the University of California after ending a business course at the College of Martin. Her change of course was not supported by her parents and financial support was henceforth not reliable. To finance her studies, she took a job as a clerk and machine operator in a factory, graduating as an occupational therapist at the San Jose State College. After graduation in 1956, Dian Fossey worked as an occupational therapist at the Kosair Crippled Children’s Hospital in Louisville. It was here that she developed a close relationship with Mary White, a co-worker who invited her to their home and family farm. Dian Fossey felt at home there and worked with livestock and her favourite animal then was a horse.
Her work in Africa
In 1963, Dian Fossey embarked on a seven-week trip to Africa, where she visited the Tsavo National Park, the Ngorongoro crater, Mt. Mikeno, Lake Manyara and Olduvai Gorge, where she met the Leakey family who briefed her about Goodall and her work with the chimpanzees in Gombe.
Dian Fossey’s first encounter with mountain gorillas was while on a wildlife tour in Uganda on that first visit. From Uganda, she spent sometime in Rhodesia and then headed back to Louisville. She wrote several articles about her amazing experience in Africa for a journal newspaper, some of which she presented to Leaky during his nationwide lecture tour in Louisville. Leaky was impressed with her work and determination and in December 1966 offered her a funding opportunity to research about mountain gorillas in Africa. She met Goodall at Gombe Stream Research Centre on her way to Congo before beginning her work at Kabara.
Relying on her natural love for animals, the extra training she received on primates and the skills she obtained as an occupational therapist, Fossey realised that mimicking gorilla actions like beating her chest and making grunting sounds gave them assurance leading to trust. She wrote several articles that were published in leading magazines and journals, including the National Geographic. Her research with mountain gorillas was extensively covered and gave her and the mountain gorillas much publicity globally.
Whereas her work with the gorillas was attracting attention and support, her work in Africa was always challenging. She was given a first doze of the challenges when her initial work in Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo) was cut short by political unrest after the country’s independence and the rise of Mobutu Sese Seko to power. She briefly relocated to Uganda before it was agreed she should establish base in Rwanda.
Fossey settled well in Rwanda, later founding the Karisoke Research Centre on September 24 1967. Her second and major challenge was to deal with unchecked poaching and rampant hunting in the greater Virunga region and particularly Rwanda. Infant mountain gorillas along with other wild animals were often kidnapped for sale on the international black market by local poachers. Animal body parts like hands were used to make magic charms and ash trays. Each attack on a young mountain gorilla often led to the death of between 5 and 10 individuals because adult gorillas defended their young to the death. There was no real effort by the local park authorities to curb the poaching as they often accepted bribes from the poachers, given their poor pay. Fossey realised that the declining number of mountain gorillas and poaching would undermine her work. The death of Digit, her favourite gorilla, was particularly traumatizing. The pain of losing Digit in a tragic way was said to have led her to resort to heavy smoking and drinking despite being diagnosed with emphysema. It was also one of the reasons she later channeled most of her efforts from gorilla research to gorilla conservation. She took matters into her own hands and, along with her team of local staff, destroyed 987 snares and traps in 1979 – something 24 park guards could not do in four months. Fossey went as far as arresting, interrogating and torturing poachers – occasionally holding poachers’ children just to get to the culprits themselves. She often wore masks during encounters with poachers causing fear among locals who thought she was a witch. Those methods and her great determination to end poaching at all costs did not often win her friends, especially among the poachers and those benefiting from the vice.
Gorilla conservation legacy
Dian Fossey made great contributions in the area of gorilla conservation and research. Her initial findings divided all gorilla conservation efforts into three categories – active, theoretical and community approaches. The active approach required eliminating poaching through strong laws, and looking for and destroying traps and snares in the parks. The theoretical approach involved promoting tourism through improved infrastructure and security. The community-based approach would require protecting the parks and forest reserves from encroachment while also sensitising communities on the importance of tourism. The community-based approach also required developing the local communities around the park and encouraging sustainable agriculture to stop encroachment on wildlife reserves. These theories have greatly shaped modern gorilla programmes and activities like the gorilla census and habituation process.
In later years, Fossey strongly opposed gorilla tourism programmes by international gorilla conservation organisations that were starting to see monetary opportunities in the extremely popular gorilla trekking experience. She felt that mountain gorillas needed to be left undisturbed in the wild. She believed encouraging gorilla tourism would expose gorilla families to diseases like influenza, leading to death. This change in opinion about gorilla tourism, her own work methods and later drinking problems led to conflicts with colleagues she supervised in her remote research centre. Unfortunately, some of her own interns
felt she was not stable enough to continue with managing the research centre. It appears that her opponents only had selfish intensions, including taking control of her Karisoke Research Centre.
Her death and legacy
Fossey was found murdered in her room by people believed to be poachers. She was found lying in her cabin in a pool of blood from a machete blow to the head. The assailant had no other intention apart from ending her life, since all her valuables were left intact. Through her relentless fight against poaching, Fossey had attracted many enemies but till date it remains unclear who was really responsible for her death. There are even claims her death was the work of illegal gold smugglers.
Wayne McGuire, one of her research assistants was sentenced to death by a Rwandan court but fled the country just before the conviction to seek refuge in the US in July 1987. A local Sanwekwe, who was said to have taken part in the attack, was found dead in his prison cell. Fossey was laid to rest besides Digit her favorite gorilla.
For true primate lovers, visiting the grave of Dian Fossey and the Karisoke Research Centre is a great way to pay homage to this great primatologist and also understand in detail her work with mountain gorillas in Africa. Regardless of the difficulties she faced and perceived personal weaknesses, nothing can take away the fact that Dian Fossey truly loved mountain gorillas and dedicated much of her productive life towards studying and ensuring the protection and survival of the endangered species. Fossey left a great legacy and through her research developed methods that are still used for several gorilla conservation programmes today, including starting the first true gorilla census. Gorilla habituation would not be possible if it weren’t for some of the methods she discovered that made gorillas comfortable around humans.
She is credited with ensuring the survival of mountain gorillas and several other organisations have continued from where she left by supporting and promoting gorilla conservation programmes such as the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.
The number of mountain gorillas has now increased from less than 400 in the 1980s to over 1,000 as discovered during the gorilla census of 2018.
In recognition of her great work, the government of Rwanda has adopted the gorilla baby naming ceremony that she started some years ago.