Dian Fossey: Hunt Saboteur in the Mist
from No Compromise Issue 28

Twenty years ago, we lost a woman who put her reputation and very life on the line in her quest to understand and defend animals. Many people think of Dr. Dian Fossey more as a researcher than a protector of the animals, but she was actually a hunt saboteur who wasn’t afraid to take direct action to save lives.

In 1963, while on a six-week trip to Africa, Dian Fossey met orangutan expert Dr. Biruté Galdikas and Louis Leakey, a famous paleoanthropologist who was also a mentor to Dr. Jane Goodall.

In 1966, Fossey moved to Africa to begin studying the mountain gorillas. She started out in Zaire, but political upheaval forced her to relocate. In 1967, she founded the Karisoke Research Center at the Parc des Volcans in Rwanda. This beautiful national park, which was under constant threat from poachers, would be the center of the rest of her life.

To truly study the gorillas, Fossey first had to gain their trust. She spent thousands of hours in intense observation of these profoundly wild animals. Eventually, her efforts paid off when an adult male gorilla touched her hand. This touch across the species barrier marked the first, friendly gorilla-human contact ever recorded.

Towards the beginning of her research, Fossey met a young mountain gorilla whom she named Digit. She watched him grow, and they were friends for 10 years—until the day Digit was murdered by poachers.

Poachers kill mountain gorillas to sell their body parts. The heads of these intelligent, incredibly beautiful animals are used as wall decorations, and their hands and feet are often turned into ashtrays.

Outraged by Digit’s death and by the failure of park guards to protect the gorillas from poachers, Fossey decided to take action. She started the Digit Fund (later renamed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund). And she also created her own anti-poaching patrol.

Fossey’s patrol destroyed thousands of snares and traps and confiscated hundreds of spears, bows, and other weapons. This work was covered by National Geographic and earned her an international reputation as an outspoken advocate for gorillas.

Fossey returned to the United States in 1974 to obtain her Ph.D. at Cambridge University and accepted a visiting associate professorship at Cornell University. During this period, she wrote the best-selling book Gorillas in the Mist, which was later turned into a movie and ended up educating millions of people about the plight of the endangered mountain gorillas.

But Fossey’s determination to protect the gorillas drew her back to Rwanda, where she resumed her anti-poaching efforts. That work earned her some ruthless enemies. On December 26, 1985, an unknown attacker entered Fossey’s cabin and killed her, apparently by hacking her to death with a machete as she scrambled to find her gun to protect herself. Local authorities believed Fossey was killed by poachers, but her death remained a mystery for 15 years.

Recently, however, Rwandan authorities accused a man named “Mr. Z” of killing Fossey. Mr. Z is also charged with being one of the chief architects of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which almost a million people from the minority Tutsi tribe were slaughtered by government soldiers, militias and bands of ordinary citizens from the majority Hutu tribe. Most victims were killed with machetes.

What’s especially disturbing about Fossey’s death is that some people apparently feel that she got what she deserved. The reason? She was too controversial, too determined to protect the gorillas and totally unwilling to accept excuses or compromise. Many felt that her tactics to stop poaching were a bit extreme. She has also been accused of mistreating her staff and other researchers, and some people thought she was crazy.

However, it is very easy to have respect for such an incredible woman, who went out on her own to study the mountain gorillas and didn’t just sit back as they were being murdered.

Today, the mountain gorillas of Rwanda are still hanging on. In fact, there are about a hundred more gorillas now than when Fossey first began struggling to save them. While Fossey remains a controversial figure, most observers agree on one fact: Without her uncompromising defense of these animals, the gorillas in the mist would be only a memory.