Fossey, Dian (1932–1985)

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Fossey, Dian (1932–1985)

Controversial American primatologist who waged an unrelenting battle to save the mountain gorillas of central Africa. Name variations: Nyirmachabelli (The Woman Who Lives Alone on the Mountain). Born on January 16, 1932, in Atherton, California; murdered on the early morning of December 27, 1985, at Karisoke, in the Virunga mountains, Rwanda; daughter of George Fossey III (an insurance agent) and Kathryn Fossey; attended Marin Junior College, 1949, and University of California at Davis, 1950; graduated San Jose State College, 1954; granted doctorate from Cambridge, 1976; never married; no children.

Directed the Occupational Therapy department at the Kosair Crippled Children's Hospital (1955–65); went on first tour of Africa (September–October, 1963); attended Louis Leakey lecture in Louisville (March 1966); left for Africa (December 15, 1966); set up camp in the Kabara Meadow (January 14, 1967); escorted off the mountain by soldiers because of outbreak of hostilities in the Congo (July 9, 1967); set up Karisoke Research Camp in Rwanda (September 24, 1967); except for intermittent periods, remained at Karisoke for the rest of her life; traveled to states for dental work (September 24, 1968); attended Darwin College at Cambridge for three months (1970); was visiting professor at Cornell in Ithaca, New York (1980–82).

Dian Fossey was born on January 16, 1932, near San Francisco. Three years later, her father, an alcoholic, moved out of the house, and her mother Kitty eventually married Richard Price, a building contractor. Under the stern rules laid down by Price that children should rarely be seen, much less heard, Fossey shared her evening meal in the kitchen with the housekeeper and was often left with her aunt and uncle. To offset her loneliness, she turned her affection to animals and, in her teens, took up horse riding.

Her mother, a petite blonde alarmed by her daughter's growing height, took Dian to a doctor. The doctor's diagnosis was that Dian was just, well, tall. Full grown, she would reach 6'1". Though the Prices were comfortably off, Fossey was pretty much on her own—financially and emotionally—when she finished high school. In 1950, she enrolled at the University of California at Davis as a preveterinary student and did well in most subjects, but she failed her second year, tripped up by the "hard" sciences: chemistry and physics. Transferring to San Jose State College, she graduated in 1954 with a degree in occupational therapy (OT).

Fossey then moved to Louisville, Kentucky, to run the OT department at the Kosair Crippled Children's Hospital and remained there for ten years. She loved working with children; she also took in stray dogs and continued riding horses, but Fossey longed to be with animals in their natural state, where they had not, she wrote, "been driven into little corners." Determined to go on safari in Africa, she borrowed from a loan company, at exorbitant interest rates, the $5,000 needed for a six-week trip to Kenya, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Uganda, Rwanda, and the Belgian Congo (known as Zaire, 1976–97, now Republic of Congo). At the time, $5,000 was her yearly salary.

Because she suffered from allergies, asthma attacks, and frequent bouts of pneumonia, Fossey traveled with a well-packed medicine chest when she departed for Africa on September 26, 1963. She endured a sprained ankle and frequent bouts of dysentery, fever, nausea, and vomiting. Even so, she gamely pressed on. At the suggestion of her guide, she visited Olduvai Gorge, near the Kenya-Tanzania border, home of paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey and archaeologist Mary Leakey , and found them home and welcoming. When Fossey told Louis that her dream was to live and work with the mountain gorillas, he heartily encouraged her, calling it a sorely neglected field of study. Louis Leakey was convinced that women were better suited for animal field study than men; he felt that women were more prone to patience and had a higher capacity to give fully. Six years earlier, he had launched Jane Goodall in her study of chimpanzees. (He would later sponsor Biruté Galdikas ' work with orangutans.)

Spurred on by Leakey's enthusiasm, Fossey headed for the home of the mountain gorilla, a four-day journey from Nairobi by Land Rover. "Right in the heart of central Africa, so high up that you shiver more than you sweat," writes Fossey, "are great, old volcanoes towering up almost fifteen thousand feet, and nearly covered with rich, green rain forest—the Virungas." Composed of eight volcanoes, including Mt. Karisimbi, Mt. Visoke, and Mt. Mikeno, the Virungas mountain range spans three African nations: the Congo on its western slopes, Rwanda on its southwestern slopes, and Uganda on its northern slopes. (The Parc des Volcans in Rwanda had been established in 1929 to protect gorillas and wildlife. On the Congo side, a counterpart, the Parc des Virungas, was established in 1922; the British did the same in Uganda.)

After six hours of high-altitude climbing on Mt. Mikeno, by way of the Congo, Fossey arrived at a base camp at Kabara Meadow, high up in the Virungas. From there, she was invited to join photographers Alan and Joan Root on a trek to find gorillas. "The terrain was unbelievable," writes Fossey, "almost straight up, and we had to hang on to vines to get along or go on hands and knees." Dian, who was, and would remain, terrified of heights, found herself panting behind the others. "For a long time we found no sign of gorillas, but then we came upon a bedding place where thirteen of them had slept the night before."

Back in the States, Fossey longed to return to Africa. She wrote of her explorations but, except for the Louisville Courier Journal, found no buyers. Then in March 1966, Louis Leakey arrived in Louisville on a lecture tour, and she was in attendance. Pleased to see her, Leakey again urged Fossey to begin observing the gorillas. She reminded him that she had not finished her preveterinary studies and had no background in the "oligies," but he waved her off. He preferred that those who entered the work be without academic prejudices. She then reminded him of her age, 34. Perfect, he said, all she had to do was have her appendix removed. Appendicitis in the bush, as Mary Leakey could testify, was dangerous.

As she waited for funding, Fossey devoured books on Africa, especially George Schaller's The Year of the Gorilla. Schaller had spent extended time in the Virungas only a few years earlier. With Louis Leakey's prodding, the Wilkie Foundation, which had supported Goodall, offered a grant to establish Fossey's project; National Geographic also kicked in. Against the advice of parents and friends, Fossey left for Africa on December 15, 1966, visited Goodall's camp to check out the setup, then purchased a used Land Rover.

Dian Fossey, Gorillas in the Mist">

I heard a noise in the foliage by my side and looked directly into the beautifully trusting face of Macho, who stood gazing up at me.… On perceiving the softness, tranquillity, and trust conveyed by Macho's eyes, I was overwhelmed by the extraordinary depth of our rapport.

—Dian Fossey, Gorillas in the Mist

On January 14, 1967, leaving their cars in the tiny village of Kibumba, Fossey, Alan Root, and 41 African porters hauled equipment 4,000 feet up the mountain. Fossey would spend two years in a tent at this camp on the edge of the Kabara Meadow, where the days were dark and generally enveloped in rain or mist, and the trails were difficult. The day after Root left, Fossey found herself celebrating her 35th birthday alone; she was depressed, listless, and lonely. Because of her limited knowledge of Swahili, she could barely talk to the three Africans who stayed in their own quarters. But that day also brought the sighting of a gorilla near the camp; it was a sign, she thought. Five days later, she made contact with her first band of gorillas, a family of nine. She named them Group 1 and began her log.

At first, Fossey was too eager, and the gorillas were disturbed. She learned to avoid sudden appearances and to maintain a submissive posture. She began to mimic their mannerisms, imitate their sounds. She also learned to track them expertly, thereby discovering other groups. After six months, despite staff insubordination and poachers, problems encountered by all primatologists undergoing similar studies, she was getting nearer the gorillas for longer periods of time; she had also acquired a workable knowledge of Swahili.

Though she had no expertise as a cook and limited options because of the paucity of food in the Kibumba market, Fossey was beginning to enjoy the isolation. She surrounded herself with animals, caring for her pet rooster Dezi, her beloved boxer Cindy, her ravens Charles and Yvonne, and her monkey Kima, despite Kima's tendency to bite. But disaster struck on July 9, 1967, when soldiers arrived to escort her off the mountain, seemingly for her protection, because of an outbreak of hostilities in the Congo. European mercenaries fighting on the side of Moise Tshombe were provoking a backlash against whites. The week before, Joseph Mobotu had authorized Congolese radio to warn that foreigners were trying to take over the country and the borders were about to be closed. Fossey was in "protective" custody for 16 days and kept in a cage for the last two. She would later confide only to close acquaintances that she had been raped repeatedly. "She knew very well that the second anybody suspected what she had been through, she would have been sent straight home," said Anita McClellan , her editor at Houghton Mifflin. "She wasn't about to let that happen. What had become more important to her than anything else on earth were those gorillas." Using bribes and a ruse, Fossey was one of the last whites to escape the eastern Congo alive. (Three Europeans of her acquaintance would be tortured and killed by the Congolese.)

Now in Rwanda, she was unemployed, penniless, close to a nervous breakdown, and fearful that Louis would think she had not tried hard enough. Leakey, on the contrary, was amazed at her courage. Then Fossey met Rosamond Carr , a 53-year-old white American who owned property at the forested lower slopes of the Virungas on the Rwanda side. The two became fast friends, and Carr suggested the home of Alyette de Munck , a Belgian woman and recent widow who lived a mile or two near, for a base camp. (Contrary to the media's depiction of her as a loner who only knew gorillas, Fossey had many close friends throughout the world and was known for her spontaneous generosity.)

With Louis' backing, Fossey began to track on the Rwandan side of Mt. Karisimbi. Two days out, she discovered her "old" Group 2—a group she had not seen for 19 weeks—but she was 30 minutes inside the Congolese border, a dangerous place to be. On the tenth day, she found a site for her camp which she would name Karisoke: a 10,000-foot-high plateau where the saddle that joins mounts Visoke, Karisimbi, and Mikeno reaches its tallest point. On September 24, 1967, as she helped pitch her tent (which would eventually be replaced by a two-room cabin), Fossey could hear the beating of gorilla chests on the slopes behind the camp.

But there were far more poachers and there was far more corruption with park officials on the Rwandan side. Fossey was soon going head to head with tradition. Though poaching and hunting was illegal in the park, Tutsi and Batwa tribes had been hunting on the slopes from time immemorial and had an understanding with the park guards. Despite admonishments from her friends to respect the traditions of the locals, Fossey demanded that the park rules be enforced: she would protect her gorillas at all costs. She complained to the L'Office Rwandais du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN), and they agreed to increase patrols.

Before Fossey, little was known about the birth and death rates of mountain gorillas, nor about their social behavior, their interaction within the group. She learned that play, a trait that gorillas generally concealed from observers, was far more important than early ape studies realized. By the end of summer 1968, she had located and was tracking nine gorilla groups and was familiar with 80 named gorillas. The outside world began to take note of the 36-year-old Fossey with her salt-and-pepper hair. There were offers of Ph.D. studies at Cambridge, publishers asking for books, adventurers hiking to her camp, bent on meeting her. Many thought her brave for mingling with gorillas; Fossey disagreed. Her bravery, she felt, was in going head to head with her acrophobia (fear of heights): she found that "sliding across a moss-slippery rock face of seventy percent slope, something a two-year-old could jump across," reduced her to "shivering weakness."

But her fears for the gorillas were not imaginary. In 1960, Schaller had estimated there were 400 mountain, as opposed to lowland, gorillas left in the world. Infant gorillas wanted by zoos were captured at high cost. In 1948, locals had killed 60 adult gorillas in order to capture 11 infants. None of the 1948 infants survived in captivity. In 1969, Fossey received word that ten adults in a group were found slaughtered by poachers intent on capturing a baby gorilla for Germany's Cologne zoo. Alerted by authorities who now had the dying baby gorilla on their hands, Fossey brought the 3-year-old male back to camp, named him Coco, and nursed him day and night. Then another baby, a three-year-old female, was captured for the zoo and brought to her for nursing. Despite her protestations, the babies were eventually crated by Rwandan officials and sent off to Cologne.

A white African warned her that, as a woman, she could not stay alone on a mountain, hunt down poachers, and live. Throughout Africa, he said, European women have lived alone on farms while their husbands went off to war. His mother was one of them. "The only way they survived was to become known as some sort of banshee." He advised her to become a spiritual witch. Since Sumu (native sorcery) was prevalent in Africa, he told her to play to it—exude toughness, create terror, wail, shriek, make crazy faces, and strike poachers if need be. In a decision that possibly led to her death, Fossey took his advice to heart, terrifying poachers, even killing the cattle of Tutsi herders because they were illegally grazing in the park. For years, it served her and it served the gorillas. It did not, however, do much for her reputation when each stupefied researcher saw the display without benefit of the explanation. Despite some who accused her of racism, those that knew Fossey said it was never about race, that she would shoot at a white poacher as fast as an African.

There were other problems in 1969. Her cabin caught fire, her chickens died. Bitten by a dog, she came down with rabies and had to be carried off the mountain to the local French hospital and endure days of rabies injections. Fossey was also having severe chest pains, and she suspected TB. Short-handed, she requested census takers to keep tabs on the dwindling gorilla population. Her first student census-taker, however, dabbled in hashish. Of all the students and researchers who would work at Karisoke, Fossey found only four who lived up to her criteria. These were the ones who treated the gorillas "with respect," writes her biographer Farley Mowat, those who recognized that "these superb creatures were according them a great privilege by tolerating the human presence." One early favorite was Sandy Harcourt; he would later become a major nemesis.

By then, Bob Campbell had also joined her off and on to do the photography. On January 1, 1970, with Campbell in tow, Fossey went in search of gorillas once more and encountered Group 8. Then, Peanuts, a young blackback, "left his tree for a bit of strutting," she wrote in Gorillas in the Mist:

He beat his chest, he threw leaves in the air, he swaggered and slapped the foliage around him, and then suddenly he was at my side.… I lay back in the foliage to appear as harmless as possible and slowly extended my hand. I held it palm up at first, as the palms of an ape and a human hand are more similar than the backs of the hand. When I felt he recognized this 'object,' I slowly turned my hand over and let it rest on the foliage. Peanuts seemed to ponder accepting my hand, a familiar yet strange object extended to him. Finally he came a step closer and, extending his own hand, gently touched his fingers to mine.

It was the first friendly physical contact ever recorded between a wild mountain gorilla and a human, and the event was captured on film by Campbell, prompting a January 1970 cover story in National Geographic which contributed to her fame. Soon, physical contact between the gorillas and Fossey would become routine.

A week later, Fossey was attending Darwin College at Cambridge, England, for a three-month term as a doctoral student in natural science. Though she felt out of her element, she knew that she "had to obtain a union card in the scientific field" to give her findings validity and obtain grant support or student help in the bush. "Without that Big Degree, you don't cut much ice no matter how good you are," she wrote. But she needed someone to watch the camp during her forays in academia; replacements would be a constant problem and cause her endless worry. Even so, with periodic excursions into academia, she would be granted a doctorate from Cambridge in 1976.

Throughout 1972, she spent much of her time with Group 4 whose population included a non-mature male that she had named Digit because of his twisted broken finger; she had been observing him since he was five in 1967. Writes Mowat:

Dian was often mobbed by the youngsters of Group 4, who treated her almost as one of themselves. Digit in particular seemed to welcome her presence. On such occasions note-taking would be forgotten and Dian would revel in the pure joy of being accepted. She groomed her friends and allowed them to groom her. She dozed with them in the sun. She tickled the infants and exchanged commiserative belches with the older females. These intimate contacts she described as 'just too thrilling for words,' and she was often moved to tears by them."

"I received the impression that Digit really looked forward to the daily contacts with Karisoke's observers as a source of entertainment," writes Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist:

"He seemed pleased whenever I brought strangers along and would completely ignore me to investigate any newcomers by smelling or lightly touching their clothing and hair. If I was alone, he often invited play by flopping over onto his back, waving stumpy legs in the air, and looking at me smilingly as if to say, 'How can you resist me?' At such times, I fear, my scientific detachment dissolved."

As Digit grew older, though their bond also matured, she gave him his space. One rainy day, with Digit off to the side and the group braced against the cold of the downpour, Fossey intentionally sat on the opposite edge of the huddled forms. "After a few minutes she felt an arm around her shoulders and looked up into Digit's warm, gentle brown eyes," wrote Mowat. "He stood pensively gazing down at her before patting her head then settling down by her side." She then laid her head on his lap. The entire sequence was captured by Campbell, and Digit became a poster child for the preservation of the gorillas. The episode would be an integral part of a widely viewed National Geographic television special, "The Search for the Great Apes," aired in 1973.

Fossey adored Campbell. The two had become close, and she dreaded his time away. But Campbell was married and each time he left with promises to talk to his wife, each time he returned without having done so. In November 1971, Fossey learned she was pregnant. A Belgian woman doctor drove from the Congo to handle the abortion. Four days later, Fossey began hemorrhaging and was near death by the time she was carried off the mountain and into surgery. The tension between Campbell and Fossey became unbearable until he left for good on May 29, 1972. During the next two months, she often drank throughout the day. By July, she was back at work.

Fossey had continual money worries. Though Leakey had promised her a salary, she never received one for all her years in the forest. By now an expert speaker who could obtain grants without his aid, Fossey kept the camp going from grant to grant. With National Geographic checks inevitably months late, Fossey would live on potatoes and borrow from friends to pay her staff. By Christmas 1976, the financial uncertainties as well as the extended living, climbing, and hiking at high altitude was taking a toll on Fossey's health. Besides an acute case of acrophobia, she suffered from insomnia, severe sciatica in her right hip, chronic pneumonia, chronic emphysema (which her heavy smoking did not help), and severe calcium deficiency (she snapped a bone in her ankle, set it herself, but it was never again quite right); she would later add hepatitis. Because of these ills and the endless paperwork, Fossey was finding it harder to get to the gorillas.

In August 1977, she trekked down the mountain to see doctors about the great pain in her chest. Rwandan physicians thought they saw tubercular lesions on the lungs, and she was packed off to Brussels. But experts there discovered an undiagnosed splintered thoracic rib that had caused bone splinters to be set adrift in her pleural cavity. The problem was corrected with surgery.

Four months later, on January 2, 1978, Ian Redmond, one of her favored researchers, came upon a "black and shapeless mound hazed with an aura of blowflies—the huge corpse of a gorilla, mutilated almost beyond recognition," writes Mowat. "The head was missing and the arms terminated in blood-encrusted stumps from which shattered slivers of bone protruded. Belly and chest had been deeply ripped and gashed. Everywhere the once-sleek black hair was matted and spiked with coagulated blood and fouled with body fluids." Digit had been massacred by poachers who had been offered $20 for the head and hands of a silverback for the tourist trade. "There are times when one cannot accept facts for fear of shattering one's being," wrote Fossey. "As I listened to Ian's terrible words, all of Digit's life since my first meeting with him as a playful little ball of black fluff ten years earlier, poured through my mind. From that dreadful moment on, I came to live within an insulated part of myself." It was the first time poachers had attacked any gorilla in her working groups.

By chance, a BBC film crew arrived on the day of Digit's burial. Fossey convinced them to film the story and distribute photos of Digit's mutilation in hopes that she might save the rest of the gorillas. Soon, two other members of Digit's group were killed, including Macho, the mother of a three-year old who was wounded and later died from gangrene. The gorillas were dying in large numbers: 36 heads had been brought down the mountain in 1976. After failing to resuscitate another baby gorilla who was gangrenous because of the snare around its foot, Fossey fell into a deep depression. In an effort to fight Rwandan indifference to the gorillas plight, she launched the Digit Fund to staff and train antipoacher patrols, a course of action that separated her from the scientific community.

Back in England, Sandy Harcourt had founded the Mountain Gorilla Project and agreed to hold and collect the money for Fossey's Digit Fund. Fossey would later learn that monies given to the fund were diverted by Harcourt and given to the Rwandan government. Harcourt insisted his group was better qualified to decide how to save the gorillas. (To Dian's fury, his group used the money to fly a committee to Rwanda for a consultation with park authorities.) In the United States, another supposed friend, Robinson McIlvaine, was also diverting Digit Fund monies into his own American Wildlife Fund. In her fury and frustration, Fossey used her own money from a personal inheritance to fund patrols.

Fossey felt under siege. Her energy now went to protecting her gorilla groups; the research, the writing, came second. She was "tough but fair," wrote Harold Hayes. She was hard on those she thought did not carry their load, compassionate to those in trouble. But she hated to be taken advantage of and those that did became the enemy. As the years in the dark and the mist wore on—18 in all—and she was beaten down by conservationist infighting, poachers, and the loss of gorillas, Fossey began to distrust everyone, even those who wanted to help. She became more reclusive and more demanding, and some students and researchers left embittered and spread rumors: that she was an alcoholic (untrue though she did drink), that she was a manic-depressive, that her gorillas were being killed because she was the target of a vendetta. Some posited that it might be easier to eject the target of the vendetta to protect the gorillas. On hearing that others were suggesting that she was the cause of the killings, she awoke, she wrote, at 1 am, "got up and lit the gas lamp and sat in bed; went into a sweat, then a chill, then threw up and felt I was going berserk."

Fossey's reputation was suffering irreparable damage, but her patrols worked. Her African staff of nine men proved to be far more loyal than her students and researchers. They confiscated thousands of snares and traps and captured spears, bows, and other weapons. In her outrage, Fossey could be high-handed. She regularly destroyed poacher snares and ransacked or demolished their shelters; she once burned the belongings of an aggressive poacher and was handed a $600 fine. Fossey took a herder's cow hostage and threatened to kill it when a herder kidnapped her dog Cindy. Cindy was returned that same evening. In four months, her African patrol had found 987 traps. The park guards had found none. Soon, there were few poachers in her area.

But there were many who were now actively trying to get Fossey out of Rwanda, some because they honestly thought she had "gone bushy," others, including the U.S. State Department and the Belgian Aid organization in Rwanda, because she was causing diplomatic discomfort. Some of her ex-researchers were hopeful she'd be removed and that they would be funded instead to run Karisoke. Sandy Harcourt announced that she was too close to her subjects and accused her of anthropomorphism, a destructive label in the scientific community and one that would also be used against Jane Goodall. Writes Hayes:

Many scientists take a less circumspect view of anthropomorphism than Harcourt. These experts say that the projection of the observer's attributes and emotions onto the study animal is not necessarily bad. They believe that anthropomorphism can be a useful tool. Frans de Waal, the author of Chimpanzee Politics, does not apologize for his anthropomorphic bias. There is no other way, he says, to look at these animals, they're so close to humans.

Even the highly respected Schaller, wrote Hayes, suggested that "these animals behaved in certain ways very much like people." A talented scientist, Schaller also stood to lose his reputation by incurring the charge of anthropomorphism, "of crossing the line that separates man from beast." But Schaller, wrote Hayes, thought it was "impossible to observe animals, particularly gorillas, without interpreting their behavior in human terms." "If a person thinks he understands a creature," Schaller maintained, "he must be able to predict its behavior in any given situation, and with gorillas I was able to do this only if I followed the bare outline of my own feelings and mental processes." By the end of his study, Schaller felt he had come to regard gorillas as he might a "human child." He also came off the mountain very concerned about the survival of the mountain gorilla; in frustration, he, too, had threatened poachers.

As Fossey saw it, there were two schools of thought when it came to conservation: theoretical conservation and active conservation. Once a gorilla was caught in a wire snare, Fossey felt they should help free it from the snare and nurse it; the theorists felt that nature should take its course, the scientist should not interfere. In Fossey's mind, poaching snares were not the work of nature.

In her view, the most important role for Karisoke was to "ensure that the creatures of the park continued to exist in life, rather than in the abstract as mere accumulations of information." Harcourt was a scientist and wanted the camp to be a compilation of data. Dian maintained that without the anti-poacher crusade there would be nothing left to study. "Data gathering surely is important," wrote Fossey, "but things haven't changed that much from the days when scientists shot everything in sight to gather data. They built their reputations then on mainly dead animals. Now they use live animals too, but the principle is the same. Alive or dead, you use the data to pile up a lot of research papers until you've got enough to get 'silverback' status. Nothing terribly wrong with that, except that many modern scientists, just like their predecessors, don't seem to care if the study species perish, just so that they get all the facts they need about them first." Ironically, Fossey's work had the disadvantage of turning gorillas into a tourist attraction. And there were those, including Harcourt, who were convinced that that was the way to go. He wanted to take tourists to see the gorillas.

By 1979, National Geographic was threatening to withdraw funding and advising Fossey to come home for a year and finish her book and research. Crippled by pain in her hip, she could barely visit the gorillas except when they were close to camp, but she dug in. Her patrols had been very effective: poachers had abandoned the region central to the three southern volcanoes. Elsewhere, the killing went on; other conservancies had no effect on the problem.

While on an African tour to further his studies in primatology, Dr. Glenn Hausfater from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, came to visit; they became friends, then lovers, and he invited her to Cornell as a visiting professor. Intermittently from mid-March 1980 to 1982, Fossey taught at Ithaca and seemed to bandage wounds. "I feel myself falling into place again for the first time since Digit was killed," she wrote a friend. Her students voted her best professor of the year.

During her absence from Karisoke, her beloved Kima died, and ex-researchers attempted to take over the research center. The powers that be put Harcourt in charge. Under his management, the camp was neglected, most of the equipment was stolen or ruined from neglect, and the poaching was back in full swing. Harcourt proved to be so demanding a manager that the board turned to Fossey to bail them out. She returned to Karisoke in June 1983, having been away three years. Within three months, she had restored the camp and her men had destroyed 1,701 traps.

To save her gorillas, Fossey finished the book that she had been working on for years. Published in 1983 by Houghton Mifflin, who hated the title, Gorillas in the Mist enjoyed worldwide sales but was poorly received by the scientific community; the loudest condemnation came from those same ex-researchers.

In 1984, Fossey was finally enjoying good press from all three of Rwanda's newspapers, but two gorillas died of diseases contacted from tourists or researchers, her parrots were being poisoned, and she found a wooden puff adder on her doorstep late one night in October. Native sorcery had planted the curse of death.

On the morning of December 27, 1985, a member of Fossey's African staff found her sprawled on her back in her cabin, her skull split from forehead to mouth on a diagonal by a panga (machete). Lamp chimneys were smashed, furniture upturned, cupboard doors flung open, only the Christmas tree with its presents for her staff sat untouched. Since nothing was missing, it was not a burglary.

The murder is still unsolved, though the Rwandans determined it was a researcher who happened to be there at the time. Wayne McGuire hardly fit the portrait of a killer, and there was little evidence, mostly contrived. Then Fossey's chief tracker, Emmanuel Rwelekona, was arrested as an accomplice. He was later found hanged in his prison cell and deemed a suicide by the authorities, though that verdict is now widely doubted. Mowat contends that she was not murdered by a vengeful poacher but by a hired assassin, because she was interfering with the exploitation of the park. She had just been granted a two-year extension on her visa. Nicholas Gordon, in his book Murders in the Mist, charges that the trail of guilt for both deaths leads to the highest levels of Rwanda's government, including the king's wife and her brother.

Near her campsite, in a graveyard that she had set aside for the gorillas, Dian Fossey was buried in a plywood coffin next to her beloved Digit. As of 1990, because of her determination, there were 310 gorillas in the mist.


Fossey, Dian. Gorillas in the Mist. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin, 1983.

Hayes, Harold T.P. The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1990.

Mowat, Farley. Woman in the Mists. NY: Warner Books, 1987.

suggested reading:

Gordon, Nicholas. Murders in the Mist: Who Killed Dian Fossey? Trafalgar, 1994.

related media:

Gorillas in the Mist (125 min.) film, screenplay by Anna Hamilton Phelan , based on the work of Dian Fossey, starring Sigourney Weaver , Julie Harris , and Bryan Brown, produced by Warner Bros.-Universal, 1989.