Dian Fossey – Life and Death
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Dian Fossey was born 1932 in San Francisco. Her parents divorced when she was six. Her mother, Kitty and her second husband, contractor Richard Price, raised her. Her stepfather was a taskmaster and her mother a worrywart, according to Fossey’s account of her childhood. She left home for college and never returned except for brief visits. Fossey began studying veterinary science at the University of California, but she transferred to San Jose State College and switched majors to occupational therapy. She graduated in 1954 and moved 2,000 miles from her mother, taking a job working with autistic children at a Shriners’ hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. Through her work she became acquainted with doctors and their wives, and through those contacts she developed an active social life in Louisville, cavorting with men from the city’s social register. Among her suitors were two brothers, Franz and Alexie Forrester, scions of a Rhodesian family with royal Austrian roots. In part through their influence, Fossey became smitten by Africa.
By 1960 Fossey was obsessed with the idea of going on safari. One problem: She had no money, and the month-long trip would cost $5,000 — more than a full year’s salary. Franz Forrester offered a solution. He proposed marriage, promising a safari honeymoon. But Fossey was not ready to settle down. Instead, she saved every penny for two years, and then took a loan against future income to raise the money for her safari. She departed Sept. 26, 1963. Fossey insisted that her guide take her to Olduvai Gorge in Serengeti National Park, the center of Louis Leakey’s famous archaeological research. Leakey was among the world’s most famous scientists in 1963, and Fossey was determined to meet him.
Leakey proved to be quite accommodating, as he generally was with attractive young women. They had a long visit, and Leakey encouraged Fossey to go north to observe the rare mountain gorillas that lived at the border lands of Rwanda, Uganda and Zaire. Leakey told Fossey to keep intouch and she had every intention to.
She and her guide made their way to the mountains, where Fossey met wildlife filmmakers Alan and Joan Root, who were filming gorillas in the Virunga Mountains. The Roots allowed Fossey to tag along. This was her first experience at high-altitude jungle hiking, and she had trouble keeping up as the couple and their African guides moved swiftly along through rugged terrain at more than 10,000 feet high. A native guide suddenly halted the group and used his machete to cut a window through the brush. Fossey crawled forward and gazed through the opening. There was a group of 6 adult gorillas lounging around. The next day, Fossey departed the mountains for an airplane trip south to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to visit the family farm of Franz and Alexie Forrester. But she left looking over her shoulder. She wrote, “I left… never doubting that somehow I would return to learn more about the Virunga gorillas.”
With singular determination, Dian Fossey spent three years plotting her return to Africa. She maintained her job working with children at the Louisville hospital, primarily because she had mortgaged her future income to secure the loan for her trip abroad. But on weekends and evenings she focused on her avocation.
She tried without success to sell the film she had shot in Africa, and she submitted photographs of her trip to the National Geographic. Fossey also labored over several long magazine articles about her safari, which she sent to some of the nation’s largest periodicals — Life, Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest. She was rejected at every turn.
Instead of giving up, Fossey enrolled in the Famous Writer’s School, the kitschy correspondence course that was popular with aspiring wordsmiths in that era. The Louisville Courier-Journal finally agreed to publish several stories about her adventure. But her big break did not come from a magazine or a famous writer. It came from Louis Leakey. In March 1966, three years after Fossey’s safari, Leakey stopped in Louisville during a lecture tour. Fossey lined up with dozens of others to meet him after the speech. “When my turn came, he gave a crinkly smile of recognition and gave my hand a good long squeeze.” Fossey wrote. “I told him that all I really wanted was to spend my life working with animals — that had always been my dream, and I was especially interested in the gorillas on the Virunga mountains.” Her timing could not have been more perfect. Leakey was considering sponsoring a long-term study of the mountain gorillas. Leakey asked her to meet him the following morning. At the meeting Leakey explained that he had already interviewed 22 applicants for the gorilla project. Most were male, university-trained scientists. But Leakey said he preferred the enthusiastic women.
This was true. In 1960, he had been paid a visit in Africa by Jane Goodall, a young native Londoner on extended holiday. Although she was untrained in the sciences, Leakey used his sway to appoint Goodall to begin a study of a community of chimpanzees on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Fossey was 34, eight years older than Goodall when she began her work. Leakey told Fossey she was the perfect age — mature and beyond the age of rash decisions. Three weeks later, he sent a letter offering Fossey the gorilla job. Fossey quit her job, tied up loose ends in Louisville, paid a visit to her family in California and departed for Africa 10 days before Christmas in 1966. Five years later, Louis Leakey anointed Birute Galdikas, a young Canadian, to study orangutans in the rainforests of Borneo. Together, the three primatologists — Goodall, Fossey and Galdikas — would become known as “Leakey’s Angels.” With Leakey’s funding, Fossey established the Karisoke Research Center, named for the two mountain peaks that framed it, Mt. Karisimbi and Mt. Visoke.
Fossey made a decision to base her research work closer to the gorillas than to civilization. From the nearest road, her camp was a three-hour climb up a path that ascended 4,000 feet She lived an austere lifestyle, dedicating herself to daily field observation of the gorilla groups living within hiking distance of Karisoke. She lived in a tent for many months, then directed the construction of a small, tin-roofed cabin that better protected her from the frequent rain and chilly air. Except for the occasional visitor, her only regular contact with the outside world was a monthly grocery excursion to the village at the base of the mountain. By most assessments, Fossey was fabulously successful in working with the animals during her early years in Africa. She spent countless hours in the bush, observing the gorillas and documenting their behavior, breeding and interplay. Over months and years, the relentless time she spent with the animals at close quarters began to pay off as the gorillas became more at ease with her presence.
The curious animals began to approach her ever more closely. She copied their movements and gestures, instinctively understanding this form of communication could be a bridge. Over time, Fossey documented the familial relationships within eight groups of gorillas, numbering nearly 100 in all, that lived in the vicinity of her camp. Fossey estimated there were just 250 mountain gorillas in all. She gave names to each of the apes — Uncle Bert, Peanuts, Amok. But she developed a particular kinship with a young male she named Digit, first encountered soon after she arrived in Africa. As he matured, the gorilla exhibited a bold curiosity about Fossey, and over several years they developed a relationship so close that it was considered unprecedented between the two species. Digit and other gorillas in his group began treating Fossey as a de facto ape. She was allowed to sit in their midst, hold the infants, groom the adults and, in turn, be groomed. She would nap with them, play with them, and even eat with them, joining the gorillas as they dined on leaves, fruit, seeds, flowers, roots and herbs.
Even the dominant silverback males — who could weigh 400 pounds and are regarded as aggressive and potentially dangerous — began to accept Fossey’s presence. In January 1970, the relationships between Fossey, Digit and the other mountain gorillas were documented in a cover story she wrote for National Geographic magazine. The images of Fossey communing with the great apes captured the hearts of the world. Journalists and documentary filmmakers rushed to Rwanda for their own look at Fossey and her hairy friends. The attention attracted additional funding, and Karisoke began to resemble a true research center, with several new cabins constructed to house visitors. University students began vying for positions as research assistants at Karisoke, and research scientists angled for temporary positions working alongside the famous gorilla-watcher. Just three years in Africa, Fossey was at the top of her profession as a field researcher. Unfortunately, Dian Fossey never developed the same affection for most humans that she felt for gorillas.
She had nothing good to say about — or to — any of her African employees. In her journal, letters, reports and conversations, Fossey consistently lambasted the Africans for various shortcomings. She wrote in her journal, “My cookboy, Phocas… is so rude and insolent I hate having him here… The same holds true with the park guards. You can’t be nice to them. If you give them a cigarette one day, they want the pack the next. So I go around giving orders and grumbling…” Another of Fossey’s peeves was the natives who grazed their domestic livestock amid the gorilla habitat in the park. Over time she became shockingly strident in her treatment of the illegal grazers. More than once she took up a rifle and shot cows owned by a native whom she believed had violated park regulations against grazing. But she saved her most venomous vitriol for poachers.
They moved like shadows in small groups through the Parc des Volcans. Most were armed with spears and machetes, not guns. Some hunted for meat to survive, targeting antelope, bushbuck, buffalo and the hyrax, a rabbit-like creature. But others specifically targeted gorillas to sell their trophy hands and heads on the international souvenir black market. After lobbying by Fossey, the Rwandan government agreed to station anti-poaching patrols at her Karisoke center. The patrols managed to push the poachers around a bit, and sometimes they would haul in a suspect. Fossey frequently exacted corporal punishment, beating the accused with a cane or the stalk of a nettles plant. She often used an additional tactic: fake black magic. With fire, gunpowder and flares, she would pretend to cast a spell on the suspected offender, hoping that word would get around among poachers of her extraordinary powers. Indeed, she came to be regarded as a little crazy, perhaps deservedly. Fossey had a long-running battle with a notorious poacher named Munyarukiko. In the spring of 1972, she discovered that Munyarukiko had staged his own arrest by park guards, who collected a $120 reward, split it with the poacher, then released him.
Fossey marched to Munyarukiko’s camp, burned his belongings and kidnapped his four-year-old son, whom she held for a day before releasing him. In her journals, she referred to her incidents of livestock-shooting, vigilante assaults and kidnapping as “my latest no-no.” Fossey established a gorilla graveyard at Karisoke for apes killed by poachers. Despite her efforts and those of the government patrols, carcasses turned up from time to time, and the graveyard grew — each plot marked by a stubby pole topped with a board on which Fossey painted the name she had given the animal. On Jan. 1, 1978, an assistant found the corpse of Fossey’s beloved Digit, by then a young silverback, ten-years-old. His head, heart and hands and feet had been removed. A dead dog found at the site — apparently killed by Digit before he was himself speared to death — was identified as belonging to Munyarukiko, the infamous poacher. The seminal event prompted Fossey to change the focus of her work. She essentially abandoned academic research in favor of gorilla advocacy — what she came to call “active conservation.” She founded the Digit Fund to pay for her work. Fossey offered a cash bounty on Digit’s killers and threatened the government with an anti-tourism poster featuring photos of the ape’s mutilated corpse above the slogan, “Come Visit Me in Rwanda.”
She ordered her student researchers to begin carrying guns. Not long after the killing, her African employees captured a local tribesman who admitted that Munyarukiko’s clan was responsible — although Fossey acknowledged that she and her men had hogtied the man and “examined him very, very, very thoroughly.” The tribesman said Munyarukiko had been paid the equivalent of $20 for Digit’s body parts. Fossey held the man for several days before turning him over to government authorities, and the Rwandan government complained to the U.S. embassy, which in turn griped to National Geographic Society, by then her primary funding source. She received a telegram from Melvin Payne, president of National Geographic: “WE ARE GREATLY DISTURBED BY OFFICIAL REPORT RECENT INCIDENT INVOLVING YOURSELF AND POACHERS STOP FULLY UNDERSTAND YOUR POSITION BUT URGE UTMOST RESTRAINT IN VIEW YOUR STATUS AS ALIEN RWANDA TOTALLY DEPENDENT UPON GOVERNMENT GOODWILL FOR CONTINUATION YOUR RESEARCH.”
She later received an official letter from the Rwandan government, warning against any publicity “that would discredit Rwanda and Rwandan parks.” Fossey agreed to a meeting at the American embassy in the capital city of Kigali, and she sat steaming as an old Belgian colonial governor, J.P. Harroy, castigated her for Digit’s death. Belgian advisors to the Rwandan government believed gorilla tourism was one of the poor country’s few possibilities for income. “He had the nerve to say that Digit had been killed because of me,” Fossey wrote in her journal. “He said the poachers wanted revenge because I’ve stopped their activities… Harroy also had the audacity to tell me that it was wrong for me to catch one of Digit’s killers!” Fossey dismissed Harroy’s ideas as those of a “senile old man.” But later events would make his words seem like a harbinger. Dian Fossey’s reaction to the Belgian official was typical: She was an inveterate name-killer and was not above throwing a tantrum — or a piece of furniture — if something did not go her way. And things rarely went her way in personal relationships.
Granted, living in a cabin on an African mountaintop does not invite stable domesticity. But Fossey had a bad habit of embarking on affairs with married men. These included any number of visitors to Karisoke, from tourists to cameramen to students to visiting scholars. She had other similarly ill-fated relationships during her periodic sabbaticals to universities in England and the United States. Most ended the same way: with the man leaving a devastated Fossey behind. She even had a brief fling with Louis Leakey, although that was the rare case in which Fossey dumped the love-bitten scientist, who gamely persisted with a series of sad love letters. But Fossey’s most trying relationship was a mix of personal and professional. In 1970, during a doctoral-studies stint at Cambridge in England, Fossey met an ambitious undergraduate student named Alexander (Sandy) Harcourt. She invited him to Karisoke as an intern, and her journal indicates that they developed an intimate relationship, although he was half her age.
Harcourt returned to the Rwandan research center as a Ph.D. student in 1972. This time, instead of pairing up with Fossey, Harcourt fell for a young American student from Stanford, Kelly Stewart, daughter of the actor Jimmy Stewart. Fossey wrote admiringly about the bright, clever Stewart during her first weeks at Karisoke. But her journal notes took a turn after Harcourt and Stewart became lovers. Like a prudish aunt, she observed their movements as keenly as she had her gorillas. “Sandy’s cabin lights went off early, and hers much earlier, but then come on again, and her curtains firmly drawn. Whom do they think they’re kidding?” For more than a decade after those jealous words were written, Fossey and Harcourt fought over control of the Karisoke center. Kelly and Harcourt disparaged Fossey behind her back as boozy, lazy and moody, and Harcourt lobbied hard with funding sources to be named director of Karisoke. Fossey had similar conflicts with Amy Vedder and Bill Weber, another young scientist couple who conducted research at the center. They later wrote a book claiming that Fossey got too much credit for her gorilla-study project. They went so far as to claim that Fossey rarely visited the gorillas because she was drunk much of the time.
Bill Weber with gorilla
A blunt letter that Frank Crigler, the U.S. ambassador to Rwanda, wrote to Fossey in 1978, after the killings of Digit and two other gorillas, gives some credence to their allegations. In his letter Crigler refers to “the Fossey problem.” “This town (Kigali) is awash in unfriendly ‘Fossey stories’ right now, all about your heavy drinking, gun slinging, and manic-depression. Some of it, at least, is reaching the Rwandan authorities,” Crigler wrote. “There’s a real danger that even well-meaning people could become convinced that Fossey is more of a liability than an asset to faunal preservation now. And those outraged letters to the Rwandan government from American conservationists, all of them citing your name, aren’t helping matters either.”
Making the same point as the former Belgian governor, Crigler went on to write that some people were “becoming increasingly convinced that they (the gorilla killings) are the results of a vendetta aimed at you personally. I take every opportunity to stress that… the government must crack down on the persons behind this vendetta. But there is nonetheless a tendency for some to want to take the easier way out, i.e., to remove the target of the vendetta.” Instead, she devised a plan to take a leave on her own terms, and in March 1980 she finally left Karisoke for an appointment as a visiting professor at Cornell University in upstate New York. She used her time there to polish her memoirs and to regain her health, decimated by sciatica, chronic respiratory distress and back pain.
Fossey spent most of the next three years in the United States.
The success of her book, Gorillas in the Mist, published in the summer of 1983, filled her bank account at the right time. Foundation funding for Karisoke had dried up, as threatened, and Fossey began paying the bills herself when she returned to Rwanda in November 1983.
In the fall of 1985, a series of odd incidents presaged Fossey’s murder. First, her pet parrots fell victim to apparent poisoning. A few days later, Fossey found the carved likeness of a puff adder — a venomous African snake — on the doorstep of her cabin. According to the region’s black magic, this meant she had been marked with the curse of death. Fossey noted in an Oct. 27 journal entry that she had received the apparent threat, but she paid little heed. Exactly two months later, early in the morning on Dec. 27, 1985, someone broke into her cabin while she slept by knocking a hole in a wall. Fossey apparently was awakened by the intruders, and she scrambled for a handgun stored in a bureau drawer. She got the gun and its ammunition clip in hand, but she was slain by two blows from a bush machete that cleaved open her head before she could use the weapon. At sunrise, an African aide delivering coffee found her body splayed across the sofa. The floor glittered with broken glass from lamp globes shattered during the struggle. The mattress on her bed was askew, and a small table at the center of the cabin was overturned. The crime scene indicated that Dian Fossey died fighting.
Fossey was buried in her gorilla graveyard on the final day of 1985. Her initial gravemarker was identical to those of the gorillas who lay buried around her: a simple wooden placard painted with the name “Dian.” Later, someone added a more permanent marker.