Dian Fossey’s Living Legacy: The Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda

A 10-month-old mountain gorilla sits atop a thicket of undergrowth 20 feet from my face. He stays near his mother at first, warily eyeing our group of trekkers and trackers huddled together in whispered awe.

Overtaken by curiosity, he crawls closer to our clicking cameras, pounding his tiny chest in an adorable display of bravado. Our guide, Francois Bigirimana, explains that this is his way of saying “I’m going to be the big boss someday!”

His mother, Kampanga, feeds on bamboo leaves, completely unfazed by our proximity. His father, Guhonda—the largest silverback in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park—sits with his back turned to us ten yards away.

Such up-close encounters with these surprisingly gentle great apes would be impossible today if not for the groundbreaking research of Dian Fossey, the iconic primatologist who was killed on December 26 three decades ago.

A baby silverback (Photograph by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett)
A baby mountain gorilla (Photograph by Bret Love and Mary Gabbett)

Fossey, who began her career as an occupational therapist, came to the attention of famed paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey in 1963. They met in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, where Fossey made a vivid first impression by breaking her ankle, falling into an excavation site, and vomiting on an ancient fossil from the pain. 

Three years later, she approached Leakey following a lecture he had given in Kentucky. Impressed by Fossey’s gumption, the veteran scientist selected her to study mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains of East Africa despite her lack of experience, following a pattern that had served him well with Jane Goodall, whom he had hired in 1960 to study chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park.

In 1966, when Fossey began her field study, the mountain gorillas of Rwanda were wild; their only prior human contact having been with poachers. After she and her team established the Karisoke Research Center in a valley between two volcanic peaks in the Virungas—Karisimbi and Visoke—Fossey slowly habituated the shy, reclusive apes to her presence so that she could sit near them and observe their daily lives.

She dutifully documented what the gorillas ate and how they vocalized, examined the complex hierarchies and social relationships among the four groups in her study, and noted how females often transferred from group to group—all of which she recounts in her 1983 memoir, Gorillas In the Mist.

Fossey’s 18 years of research led to remarkable discoveries about mountain gorillas. But perhaps her greatest contribution to the survival of mountain gorillas as a species was the introduction of what she called “active conservation” tactics—patrolling to ward off poachers and chase away cattle, destroying traps, taking census counts of the animals, and lobbying for the expansion of protected habitat. She was certain that without quick and decisive action, carried out by herself with a team of locals she had hired and trained, long-term gorilla conservation goals would be futile, as there would eventually be nothing left to save.

Along with her crew, Fossey captured, beat, and humiliated suspected poachers, occasionally holding their cattle for ransom or burning their hunting camps to the ground. She accused national park staff of helping poachers capture infant gorillas for foreign zoos and challenged Rwandan government officials to enforce poaching laws more strictly.

Though her approach to combating Rwanda’s poaching problem was widely criticized as inflammatory, it was effective. She financed four-man patrols that destroyed 987 traps over a period of several months in 1979. During that same stretch of time, Volcanoes National Park’s 24-man team failed to destroy one.

Fiercely protective of “her” gorillas, Fossey has been described as obsessive and even ruthless by her own staff members. “Dian was very good at what she did, but she was a very tough boss,” recalls Bigirimana, who worked as a porter for her in the early 1980s. “I think maybe she liked gorillas more than she liked people.”

In his book African Madness, journalist Alex Shoumatoff paints Fossey as an antisocial and arrogant figure whose brash and often abusive behavior toward Africans, including members of her own staff, ultimately led to her demise.

However, Tara Stoinski, the head of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, cautions against viewing Fossey’s interactions with locals by today’s standards.

“I think it’s important to view her legacy in terms of what relationships between researchers and locals were like at the time,” she says. “The attitude was much more about the need to protect these animals and keep other people out.”

No matter how you view Fossey, Stoinski maintains, “the model she set up of having an intensive boots-on-the-ground presence day after day is responsible for mountain gorillas still being [in the Virunga Mountains] today.”

Despite decades of civil unrest leading to the horrific 1994 genocide of more than 800,000 Tutsis, Rwanda is the only country whose mountain gorilla population is growing.

Poaching, disease, and habitat loss had reduced their numbers to around 250 across their range in East Africa—including smaller populations in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo—by the time Fossey died in 1985. Today there are approximately 900 left on Earth, and nearly half of them live in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.

Francois Bigirimana (left) with a group of gorilla trackers (Photograph by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett)
Francois Bigirimana (left) with a group of gorilla trackers (Photograph by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett)

Gorilla conservation has been a key factor in the nation’s rise as a high-end ecotourism destination, with Volcanoes attracting tens of thousands of visitors each year. Foreign trekkers pay $750 a head for a permit allowing them to spend an hour with one of the ten gorilla families that make their homes in the park, generating over $15 million annually, with much of that revenue used to fund local protection efforts.

It’s easy to imagine Fossey blowing a fuse at the visitor center, where 80 visitors and an equal number of porters and guides gather each morning at sunrise to be divided into groups of eight and find out which family they’ll get to spend their 60 minutes with that day.

Our group lucks out in landing Francois Bigirimana as our lead guide. The oldest and most experienced ranger in Volcanoes, he proves animated and entertaining, describing the Sabyinyo family in terms of which female Guhonda got “jiggy jiggy” with and teaching us intonations that guides use to communicate with the gorillas, from a calming low grumble to a greeting—“Mah-mmmmm”—that sounds like a drunken Wookiee.

When he discusses the 200 different plants that make up the bulk of the mountain gorilla diet—including fresh bamboo, gallium vines, and wild celery—he eats the plants himself and encourages us to do the same.

By the time we make the moderately strenuous trek through fields of pyrethrum flowers, over the stone wall boundary of Volcanoes National Park, and up an incline that varies between bamboo forest and choked undergrowth, we almost feel like mountain gorillas ourselves. Which makes sense, since they share about 98 percent of our human DNA.

From the moment Bigirimana tells us to drop our packs and walking sticks, as “the gorillas are very close now,” our magical hour seems to pass in the blink of an eye. Though the rules state visitors must keep 22 feet away from the great apes at all times, it immediately becomes clear that they did not get that memo.

On more than one occasion, gorillas walk so close to us that we have to lean into the surrounding vegetation to avoid them. One woman in our group, whose back was turned as a female approached, got a gentle touch on her shoulder as if to say, “Coming through!”

Looking into the eyes of a mountain gorilla, it is easy to imagine the emotions Dian Fossey must have felt as she became the first scientist to study the species in earnest nearly half a century ago, and to understand why she became so passionate about protecting these critically endangered great apes.

While Fossey fought hard to keep illegal hunters at bay, many gorillas were killed by poachers under her watch. In the end, she herself was bludgeoned to death in her cabin by someone who opposed her methods, either by a poacher or a scorned member of her staff.

Fossey is buried at the Karisoke Research Center, in a graveyard she had constructed for her deceased gorilla friends, next to her favorite ape, Digit.

In addition to documenting the daily lives of mountain gorillas, Fossey kept a personal diary. The last entry she wrote read:

“When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.”

Thankfully, Rwanda seems to have taken this advice to heart. Applying the lessons of both Fossey’s successes and failures, the nation now looks to the mountain gorilla as a source of national pride and a hopeful symbol of its economic future.

> You might also enjoy: