the tragedy of dian fossey. (women in science 64)

There are people to whom it is given to wait alone on humanity’s dark edge and stand against all the worst of our collective impulses:  our greed, our indifference, our manic need for glory, our revelry in the conquering of the unfortunate and powerless, everything that civilization struggles daily to put in a sealed box so that it won’t disturb our smooth routine of eating snacks and entertaining ourselves.  The reward for being one of these fringe sentries is never what it ought to be, but rarely has somebody been pilloried, harassed, and plotted against with such venomous steadiness as primatologist Dian Fossey (1932-1985), whose life’s struggle against rapacious zoos employing ruthless poachers was cut short by her gruesome murder.

Her childhood established the pace for all the grinding sorrow, frustration, and loneliness to follow.  Her parents divorced when she was young, and the person her mother married next was a man who believed firmly that children did not count as people until they were grown.  Young Fossey had to eat her meals in a separate room and, in spite of adoring animals as her one solace in a lonely life, was routinely denied them.  Her loveless childhood, her total lack of a nurturing paternal presence, set the stage for a lifetime of desperately seeking love from a series of older, often married, men who treated her decently for a few months and then inevitably rejected her in cold contempt as they moved on to other dalliances.

At college, she at first attempted a veterinary degree but stopped the program when she couldn’t pass the necessary physics and chemistry courses, opting instead to go into occupational therapy, resulting ultimately in an appointment at the Korsair Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky.  Here, she developed some of the techniques that would serve her so spectacularly well as an observer of mountain gorillas in Zaire and Rwanda.  She noticed that many severely autistic children didn’t respond to direct approaches, and surmised that there was a desire to establish connection deep inside that simply couldn’t find a means of expression when presented with a person demanding immediate verbal and behavioral acknowledgment of some sort.

To help these children, she created a method of indirect contact.  She’d enter a room and, rather than immediately and overwhelmingly engaging with the patient, she would simply wander over to something interesting, a toy or a pet, and start playing with it, doing her own thing with an object that could form a connection between herself and the child, presenting herself as a totally passive and therefore unthreatening presence to be approached in one’s own good time.  The approach scored some phenomenal successes over Fossey’s twelve years at Louisville, and informed her primate habituation technique of the 1960s.

Up until 1966, there was nothing in Fossey’s background which suggested a future as a world-famous primatologist.  She hadn’t done any field research, earned any particular degree in primate studies and had been, except for an intense desire to visit Africa, wearing a fine and familiar groove in her work with children.  But on her eventual wildlife tour of Africa, purchased by the taking out of a rather reckless loan, she happened across the path of Louis Leakey, who had already taken a young outsider by the name of Jane Goodall and given her the means to become a primate researcher of international renown.  Leakey felt that animal field research was a job better done by people outside the mainstream academic community, whose techniques often involved a brutality that showed little or no concern for the long term well being of the animals under study.  Goodall had proved a different way was possible, and Leakey was curious if her triumphs could be repeated with the other great apes when Fossey showed up unannounced at his camp.

Ultimately, he would use his connections with National Geographic and in African politics to establish her, a person with absolutely no field or survival experience, in an observation base on a mountain 10,000 feet high on the border of Zaire, one of the most politically unstable countries in Africa at the time.  To send a green researcher into that situation seemed reckless madness, and yet Leakey’s instinct proved true.  Fossey was, in spite of chronic lung sickness and a growing list of other ailments, unbreakable.  She started the long process of gaining the gorillas’ trust, using her indirect methods from the children’s hospital while mimicking the vocalizations and gestures of the apes.  The fearsome gorillas who had been known for charging inquisitive researchers before bounding away to unreachable altitudes came to accept her presence as a part of their routine, and she logged hundreds of hours of observations before the deterioration of the political situation in Zaire forced her to flee the country one step of arrest and to rebuild her work from scratch at a new outpost established on the Rwandan side of Mt. Visoke.

Here, she encountered straight away the two obstacles that would haunt the rest of her research: native herders and poachers.  The herders were penetrating higher into the mountains in search of forage space for their cattle in spite of the fact that Fossey’s research area was located in a theoretical nature preserve.  Their presence put stress on the gorilla groups being observed, and forced them to higher ground where survival was more difficult.  They were a nuisance, but Fossey’s real foes were the poachers.

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Poachers had several revenue streams open to them which made hunting in the wildlife preserve wildly profitable, so profitable that, even if arrested, they could easily bribe enough officials to release them within weeks of their capture.  Elephant tusks and gorilla hands and heads were popular items on the exotic goods market.  Gorilla gallbladders were considered to have magical properties.  Those were bad enough, but the real tragedies came when European zoos hired poachers to procure for them the young gorillas they wanted as attractions for their new primate exhibits.  Blithely unconcerned with how the poachers went about the procurement, they simply forked over the money and waited for their baby apes.  Poachers would arm themselves, surround a family, then shoot and mutilate the adults before stealing the infants, who would often die of maltreatment before reaching their destinations.

Seeing the carnage first-hand, Fossey wrote strongly worded letters of complaint to the Rwandan government officials and European zoological agencies who might have done something about it, but no action was taken.  There was simply too much profit in it to change policy.  So, Fossey took matters into her own hands and, between sessions of gorilla observation, organized regular expeditions to comb the mountain, dismantling animal snares and capturing poachers wherever they were found.  The academic establishment sniffed at these efforts.  Scientists are supposed to do research, not waste time and resources trying to protect wildlife from poaching.  When poachers were responsible for decimating the males of her main study group, Group 4, decapitating and mutilating the silverbacks upon whose shoulders the survival of the group rested,  she established a special fund, the Digit Fund (so named after the first gorilla found slaughtered), the purpose of which was to hire more Africans to monitor the forest for poaching activity.

Fossey with the gorillas. Photo: National Geographic.

And that’s when everything started going horribly wrong.  In Britain, other conservation organizations wanted in on the suddenly popular gorilla movement, and co-opted the Digit Fund, taking money that donors thought was going to Fossey’s anti-poaching efforts and giving them instead to the Rwandan government, which spent the funds on promoting gorilla tourism which disrupted the gorillas’ lives and on buying fancier automobiles for park officials.  People who Fossey had trained turned on her, insisting that she redirect herself towards the new gorilla tourism approach and abandon “active conservation.”  Academics who wanted a shot at studying at the site Fossey had built from nothing but who didn’t want to be bothered with protecting the animals went out of their way to build alliances to force her from the mountain.  The Rwandan bureaucracy harassed her in every way they could imagine, holding up the visas for her students and, eventually, herself as well, in the hopes that they could take over her camp and turn it into a new tourist center, while the park guards who were being paid to stop the poachers continued doing effectively nothing, taking bribes to look the other way while gorillas got slaughtered by the dozens.

Her prime sponsor, National Geographic, was influenced by those who wanted to wrest control of the mountain from Fossey, and insisted on a restructuring of the site that forced her to leave for a year and put in her place Stacy Harcourt, who high-handedly insisted that everybody who was doing gorilla research had to give it up so that he could have the animals to himself, dismantled the anti-poaching activities of Fossey’s patrols, and allowed all of the facilities to rot and its equipment to be made off with.  He inherited a thriving research and conservation center which had captured thousands of snares and all but eliminated poaching in the study region and left behind a dilapidated set of shacks, a bankrupt institution, and a mountain that poachers cris-crossed at will to resume their activities.

To bring the site up back to its former standards required money, and since the British conservation societies were still sending her funds to everybody but her, and National Geographic had pulled back its financing, that left her to finance the operation out of pocket, from lecture revenues and from the proceeds of a book, Gorillas in the Mist, which she wrote to make the public aware of the magnificent work being done at the Karisoke Research Center, and the brutality that would ensue if these creatures weren’t fully and effectively protected.

That book sold well enough, and a movie version was optioned but, unfortunately, Dian Fossey would not live to see it.  The Rwandan tourist trade made nearly three quarters of its money from gorilla tourism, and had set its heart on ousting Fossey by denying her an extension on her visa.  With characteristic determination, she took the matter to her friends highly situated in the Rwandan government and received a two year visa (her last two had been just for two months) that all but guaranteed her continued presence on the mountain.  She could not be gotten rid of, legally.

On December 27, 1985, she was found, murdered, in her room, her skull cracked open by a traditional poacher weapon.  It was made to look like a revenge strike carried out by the poachers who were frustrated with her renewal of the anti-poaching patrols, but the way that the murderer entered the room suggested it was the work of somebody Fossey knew, somebody who had seen the inside of the building.  Whether that person was a disgruntled former employee or an assassin in the hire of the Rwandan government, we’ll never know, but her example of one woman, standing entirely alone against massive economic and institutional powers to protect the interests of a single species through every means at her limited disposal is a towering one, to be forgotten at our peril.  Through her, field research’s conscience grew three sizes in just under two decades, and the dark edge of humanity was pushed back a bit further, and perhaps more than a bit at that.


FURTHER READING:  Gorillas in the Mist is a wonderful book, but if you want the full Fossey story then Farley Mowat’s Woman in the Mists (1987) is probably where you want to be.  The extensive excerpts from her field journals provide excruciating insight into the struggles that she faced in keeping her gorillas safe and her research stable, insights that she edited out of Gorillas in order to give more focus to the gorillas themselves rather than the people who surround them.  Primates by Jim Ottaviani also devotes a third of its pages to the Fossey story via the clearly superior medium of comics, and you get the two other trimates as well – Goodall and Galdakis!  Yay!

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