Dian Fossey

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Dian Fossey : biography

January 16, 1932 – December 26, 1985

Fossey had arrived in the Congo in locally turbulent times. Known as the Belgian Congo until its independence in June 1960, unrest and rebellion plagued the new government until 1965, when Lieutenant General Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, by then commander-in-chief of the national army, seized control of the country and declared himself president for five years during what is now called the Congo Crisis. During the political upheaval, a rebellion and battles took place in the Kivu Province. On July 9, 1967, soldiers arrived at the camp to escort Fossey and her research workers down, and she was interned at Rumangabo for two weeks. Fossey eventually escaped through bribery to Walter Baumgärtel’s Travellers Rest Hotel in Kisoro, where her escort was arrested by the Ugandan military. Advised by the Ugandan authorities not to return to Congo, after meeting Leakey in Nairobi, Fossey agreed with him against US Embassy advice to restart her study on the Rwandan side of the Virungas. In Rwanda, Fossey had met local American expatriate Rosamond Carr, who introduced her to Belgian local Alyette DeMunck; DeMunck had a local’s knowledge of Rwanda and offered to find Fossey a suitable site for study.

Conservation work in Rwanda

On September 24, 1967, Fossey founded the Karisoke Research Center, a remote rainforest camp nestled in Ruhengeri province in the saddle of two volcanoes. For the research center’s name, Fossey used “Kari” for the first four letters of Mt. Karisimbi that overlooked her camp from the south, and “soke” for the last four letters of Mt. Visoke, the slopes of which rose to the north, directly behind camp. Established up Mount Visoke, the defined study area covered . She became known by locals as Nyirmachabelli, roughly translated as "The woman who lives alone on the mountain."

Unlike the gorillas from the Congo side of the Virungas, the Karisoke area gorillas had never been partially habituated by Schaller’s study; they knew humans only as poachers, and it took longer for Fossey to be able to study the Karisoke gorillas at a close distance.

Many research students left after not being able to handle the cold, dark, and extremely muddy conditions around Karisoke on the slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes, where paths usually have to be cut through six-foot-tall grass with a machete.

Opposition to poaching

While poaching had been illegal in the national park of the Virunga Volcanoes in Rwanda since the 1920s, the law was rarely enforced by park conservators, who were often bribed by poachers and paid a salary less than Fossey’s own African staff. On three occasions, Fossey wrote that she witnessed the aftermath of the capture of infant gorillas at the behest of the park conservators for zoos; since gorillas will fight to the death to protect their young, the kidnappings would often result in up to 10 adult gorillas’ deaths. Through the Digit Fund, Fossey financed patrols to destroy poachers’ traps in the Karisoke study area. In four months in 1979, the Fossey patrol consisting of four African staffers destroyed 987 poachers’ traps in the research area’s vicinity. The official Rwandan national park guards, consisting of 24 staffers, did not eradicate any poachers’ traps during the same period. In the eastern portion of the park not patrolled by Fossey, poachers virtually eradicated all the park’s elephants for ivory and killed more than a dozen gorillas.

Dr. Fossey helped in the arrest of several poachers, some of whom served or are serving long prison sentences.

In 1978, Fossey attempted to prevent the export of two young gorillas, Coco and Pucker, from Rwanda to the zoo in Cologne, Germany. During the capture of the infants at the behest of the Cologne Zoo and Rwandan park conservator, 20 adult gorillas had been killed. The infant gorillas were given to Fossey by the park conservator of the Virunga Volcanoes for treatment of injuries suffered during their capture and captivity. With considerable effort, she restored them to some approximation of health. Over Fossey’s objections, the gorillas were shipped to Cologne, where they lived nine years in captivity, both dying in the same month. She viewed the holding of animals in "prison" (zoos) for the entertainment of people as unethical.Fossey, Dian : Gorillas in the Mist. 1983