Dian Fossey, Africa's mountain gorillas and deadly toll of poaching

A critically endangered mountain gorilla captured by the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network (c) TEAM
A critically endangered mountain gorilla captured by the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network (c) TEAM
Dian Fossey dedicated her life to the study of the critically endangered mountain gorilla. CURTIS ABRAHAM looks into her life, sudden death and the lasting legacy she left in mountain gorilla preservation.
For almost two decades, she single-handedly pioneered the study of the rare and critically endangered mountain gorilla

Half a century ago, the controversial American primatologist Dian Fossey established her field camp in the midst of two volcanoes in Rwanda. For almost two decades, she single-handedly pioneered the study of the rare and critically endangered mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei).

She went on to make ground-breaking discoveries about gorillas including how females transfer from group to group over the decades, gorilla vocalisation, hierarchies and social relationships among groups, rare infanticide, gorilla diet, and how gorillas recycle nutrients.

In spite of her complex personality, Fossey gave her life in order to protect one of humanity’s closest living relatives. This year also marks the eighty-fifth anniversary of her birth.

Pioneering primatologist

In the early morning hours of 27th December 1985, Dian Fossey, by then one of the world’s celebrated naturalist and bestselling author of Gorillas in the Mist was brutally murdered in the bedroom of her cabin on the slopes of the Virunga Mountains in Rwanda’s northern Ruhengeri Province.

Fossey was recognized as the world's leading authority on the physiology and behavior of the rare and critically endangered mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei)-one of our closet living relatives. For almost two decades, she undertook an extensive study of mountain gorillas at the Karisoke Research Station, the longest of any field naturalist.

For almost two decades, she single-handedly pioneered the study of the rare and critically endangered mountain gorilla

Fossey wasn’t the first to study mountain gorillas in the field. In 1959, the legendary American naturalist George Schaller began a year’s natural history study on the D. R .Congo side of Parc National des Virunga, which resulted in the publication of The Mountain Gorilla: Ecology and Behavior.

In late 1967, when political crisis in the Congo forced Fossey to relocate her fieldwork to Rwanda, she established the Karisoke Research Station on the foothills of Mt.Visoke, a cold, muddy and dark volcano that rises 3,000 meters into the mist.

A complex character

American primatologist Kelly Stewart Harcourt knew Fossey well at the time. In the late 1960s, Harcourt, daughter of Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart, became a student of Fossey at Karisoke (she spent her summer holidays from Stanford University excavating fossils at Lake Rudolph, now Lake Turkana, in northern Kenya with Richard Leakey).

Her love for gorillas began following a close encounter with eastern lowland gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri) in the Congo. Harcourt was holidaying in the Congo with her mother, Gloria McLean, an animal rights activist, and sister Judy. At Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Adrien Deschryver, a Belgian photographer and conservationists who had established the park, habituated one group of gorillas.

“After the first charge by the silverback my fate was further defined and I knew I wanted to study wild gorillas,” Harcourt recalled. “That was in 1972. So I wrote to Dian Fossey and asked her if I could come to Karisoke and do anything she needed me to do. She said yes [following a brief interview in California] and I went to Rwanda in 1973 three weeks after graduating from Stanford.”

Harcourt describes Fossey at the time as genial but formal and serious “and not exactly encouraging about my coming to Karisoke” (ironically, Fossey thought ‘girls’ were weak and not for the kind of fieldwork that was required).

“When I got to Rwanda, Dian was extremely warm, welcoming and encouraging,” says Harcourt. But she sensed a dark undercurrent in Fossey’s character.

“She was also a bit scary, exuding a determined, uncompromising, take-no-prisoners attitude towards poachers, cattle in the Park illegally (of which there were many at that time), and any ‘students’ who didn’t dedicate themselves 100% to the good of Karisoke,” Harcourt recalls.

“Basically, she appeared to fear nothing and was not going to take any nonsense from anyone. At the same time, she seemed like a very emotional person, almost too emotional.”

For Harcourt, these first impressions in the field never really changed. The Dian Fossey she saw that first day was the person she was, although of course many layers were added as she grew to know her better.

Harcourt told the American writer Alex Shoumatoff about her mentor’s strained relations with Rwandans.

“She had a perfectly colonial attitude toward the Africans. On Christmas she’d give the most extravagant presents to them; other times she’d humiliate them, spit on the ground in front of them—once I even saw her spit on one of the workers—break into their cabin and accuse them of stealing and dock their pay.”

Dr. Shirley McGreal, however, remembers another Fossey. In the spring of 1978, Fossey had given a lecture at the Citadel, the military College of South Carolina in Charleston. 

But the pair finally met at the Leakey Foundation's meeting at nearby Harrietta Plantation (she and McGreal had struck up an earlier correspondence that continued for years until Fossey’s tragic death).

“She was friendly, a little shy,” says McGreal, President and Board Chair of the International Primate Protection League in Summerville, South Carolina. “As far as I know, Dian always liked most Rwandans although she was rightly tough on poachers.”

Tortured poachers.

Poaching was the greatest threat to wildlife in the Virungas at the time. Fossey adopted a 'take- no prisoner' attitude to illegal hunting.

Reportedly, not only did she take poachers (or suspected poachers) prisoners but also inflicted retribution on their bodies (she is said to have had them stripped and beaten with stinging nettles).

Baby gorillas were particular targets for poachers and traffickers. They were sold to European zoos. Their abductions were devastating for mountain gorilla families since adult gorillas will fight to the death to protect their young and the kidnappings would often result in up to ten adult gorillas' deaths.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (“The Digit Fund”), which was established by Fossey to remember her favorite gorilla that was killed and butchered by poachers, aimed at preventing further poaching of mountain gorillas. The fund also allowed her to finance patrols aimed at destroying poachers' traps in the Karisoke study area.

In 1979, Fossey’s patrol group of four Rwandan workers, in just four months, destroyed 987 poachers' traps in the research area's vicinity. Fossey also helped in the arrest of several poachers, some of whom served jail time.

Conservation today

In spite of Fossey’s shortcomings, she influenced the next generation of primatologist in their studies of mountain gorillas. This younger generation would preside over a change in the nature of primate field research as well as mountain gorilla conservation strategies.

“Dian was largely documenting the basics of social behavior, since so little was known at the time”, says Amy Vedder, an ecologist and primatologist at Yale University and an alumnus of Karisoke Research Center under Fossey.

Almost two generations on, the questions being asked about mountain gorillas are different. They are more specific and detailed. They also cover a wider range of scientific subjects from social structure to ecology.

New scientific techniques and technologies such as DNA analysis have also aided contemporary gorilla experts (DNA analysis has increasingly been used to provide more accurate population count than simply relying on proxy indicators such as scrape marks, nests and feces). 

In addition, an ongoing Remote Sensing Cameras (“camera traps”) program, an initiative of the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network, is documenting the secret lives of Virunga’s and Bwindi’s unhabituated mountain gorilla populations.

Mountain gorilla field studies have also changed. For example, instead of working from a base camp in the park, as Fossey and Schaller did, research in the field is now done by hiking into and out of the park each day.

Today, primatologists, and conservationists generally, have realized that local communities are important players in conservation. In addition, field research is now directed by a Rwandan scientist, with several Rwandan experts conducting their own scientific investigations.

“Under Dian's direction of the research center, she would not allow a Rwandan to be in sight of the gorillas - claiming it would make the gorillas more vulnerable to poaching,” says Vedder. 

“Given that a gunshot or a trap could be effective without being seen, this didn't make complete sense, and now that Rwandans are fully engaged in their conservation poaching is far, far reduced and the gorilla population is thriving.”

New conservation strategies have led to a boom in the mountain gorilla populations. On the Virunga Massif, their numbers have doubled since the time of Fossey's death. 

In 1981, there were approximately 250 mountain gorillas living on the forested slopes of the Virunga volcanoes. In 2010, the year of the last census, it was estimated that 480 mountain gorillas lived on the 451km2 Virunga Massif while some 400 inhabit Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in neighboring Uganda.

Extreme conservation

A new census of mountain gorillas has been underway for the past two years. It’s anticipated to be the most accurate to date.

“Although daily checks of habituated mountain gorillas carried out by park rangers give some insight into how these animals are doing, it is only through a systematic survey that we can monitor gorilla population trends over time,” says Anna Behm Masozera of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme. 

“The survey, or census, still underway for the Virunga Massif population under the framework of the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration, consists of two sets of data – observations of gorilla signs from the field and lab-based DNA analyses of fecal samples collected. Only by combining the two are we able to get an accurate estimate for the number of unique individuals and groups.”

This recovery of Virunga’s gorillas has been brought about through ‘extreme conservation’, which is targeted to deliberately increase positive human influences, including veterinary care and close monitoring of individual animals. 

Each group of habituated gorillas is now continuously guarded by a separate team of field staff during daylight hours and receives veterinary treatment for snares, respiratory disease, and other life-threatening conditions.

In their 2001 report, ‘Extreme Conservation Leads to Recovery of the Virunga Mountain Gorillas’, Martha M. Robbins and colleagues, cited veterinary interventionsbeing responsible for up to 40% of the difference in growth rates between habituated versus unhabituated gorillas, with the remaining difference likely arising from greater protection against poachers. 

“Dian felt she had to physically protect the gorillas by capturing suspected poachers on her own, chasing cattle out of the forest, and even kidnapping suspected poachers' children,” Amy Vedder recalls. “She did this without working in tandem or coordination with the national park service.”

After her death, Fossey's Digit Fund in the U.S. was renamed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, which currently operates the Karisoke Research Station and continues the daily gorilla monitoring and protection that she started.

In spite of this, long-term conservation efforts are still needed. The two species of Gorillas, and the four or five sub-species that are spread out in eleven countries in sub-Saharan Africa, are all are critically endangered and threatened by habitat loss, disease, poaching and conflict with humans. The biggest threat to mountain gorillas comes from insecurity in the DRC. Peace could increase the gorilla population even further.

Murder and impunity

In 1987, it was this culture of violence (and impunity) in Africa’s Great Lakes region that tragically ended Fossey’s life.

According to Nicholas Gordon, author of the 1994 book Murders In the Mist: Who Killed Dian Fossey, Protais Zigiranyirazo, (a.k.a Monsieur Zed or ‘Mr. Z’), allegedly had Fossey killed because she found out he was selling baby gorillas to European zoos (or had just sold a baby gorilla to a European zoo), which required killing the baby's whole family.

Zigiranyirazo was a former governor of the province of Ruhengeri, brother of AgatheKanziga, widow of assassinated Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, and a businessman who was implicated in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda (he reportedly created death squads and ordered or authorized roadblocks and gave orders to kill all Tutsi that attempted to pass through) but was acquitted at Arusha (partly based on the fact that he was not found to have engaged in “genocide planning”).

Fossey allegedly stormed into his office, went ballistic and called him every name in the book in front of his employees. She was reportedly about to announce publicly that Zigiranyirazo was behind the poaching and smuggling rings of endangered species, and gold that was floating in and out of Rwanda.

Protais Zigiranyirazo has never been charged with the murder of Dian Fossey and, reportedly, currently resides in Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast.

This Author

Curtis Abraham is a freelance writer and researcher on African development, science, the environment, biomedical/health and African social/cultural history. He has lived and worked in sub-Saharan Africa for over two decades but is originally from Springfield Gardens, Queens, New York.


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