By Elizabeth Royte, NG, Sep 2017
On an overcast morning, with temperatures in the mid-50s, it takes me nearly two hours to hike from the outskirts of Bisate [Rwanda] through calf-deep mud and shoulder-high nettles to the research site established in 1967 by [Dian] Fossey in the high-elevation saddle between Mounts Karisimbi and Visoke. The camp, which Fossey named Karisoke, began with two tents and grew to include more than a dozen cabins and outbuildings in a grove of moss-shrouded Hagenia tress, 80 feet tall. Today, as in Fossey’s day, a profusion of ferns, vines, and grasses seems to tint the humid air green, and a stream flows through the clearing. When the corpse of an infant gorilla disappeared, Fossey spent countless hours hunched on this stream bank examining adult dung for irrefutable evidence of cannibalism, but she never found it.
After an intruder murdered Fossey in her bed in 1985–a crime that remains a mystery–researchers continued to work at Karisoke. The camp shut down in 1994 during the Rwandan genocide, and rebels traversing the forest ransacked it. Today the much expanded Karisoke Research Center operates out of a modern office building in nearby Musanze, and the only man-made traces of Fossey’s site are the foundation stones and the occasional stovepipe.
Despite the climb, drenching rains, and temperatures that can drop into the 30s, some 500 pilgrims a year trek to Karisoke to pay tribute to Fossey. Many know her from her book Gorillas in the Mist, which inspired the 1988 movie. On my visit, though, I have the place mostly to myself. As I explore the grounds, trying to imagine Fossey’s life here, porters quietly scrape lichen from the wooden signs that mark the graves of 25 gorillas. Just outside this rustic cemetery, a bronze plaque rises over Fossey herself.
The tall, outspoken Fossey was not universally loved. Many locals considered her an interloper or a witch, who not only confounded cultural norms but also presented an existential threat to those who depend on the forest for sustenance. From the start, Fossey made clear her priorities. She chased herders and their cattle out of the park: The animals trampled the plants that gorillas favored and forced them up-slope to temperatures they couldn’t withstand. Every year they destroyed thousands of traps and snares intended to catch antelope and buffalo. The snare didn’t kill gorillas outright but often pinched off limbs that became gangrenous or fatally infected. Fossey captured and beat poachers with stinging nettles, burned down their huts, confiscated their weapons, and once ever took a poacher’s child hostage. But her most effective tactic–and enduring part of her legacy–was paying locals to patrol the park and insisting that Rwandan authorities enforce antipoaching laws. Fossey was a polarizing figure, but as Jane Goodall, the chimpanzee expert, once said, “If Dian had not been there, probably there might not have been mountain gorillas in Rwanda today.”
Contemplating the simple plaque on Fossey’s headstone, I’m struck by all that was extraordinary about this pioneer: her 18 years in the forest, her epic battles for funding, and her struggles for academic legitimacy, physical health, and emotional connection. It’s beyond irony that Fossey showed the world a largely peaceable realm of affectionate gorilla families, while her own life was characterized by bitterness and mistrust.