Fatal Obsession, The Jungle Death of Dian Fossey
Vanity Fair Magazine, September 1986
Click here to access the printer friendly version of this article.

    The rains in Rwanda had let up last December when Dian Fossey was murdered in her cabin in the mountains, but by the time I arrived, a few months later, they were coming down hard, twice a day. The airport at Kigali, the capital, was socked in. Through the ciouds I caught glimpses of long ridges and deep valleys terraced with rows of bananas, beans, sweet potato. Rwanda is one of the smallest, poorest, and most densely populated countries in Africa. There are 5.9 million Banyarwanda, as the people are called-more than 500 per square mile. Almost every available patch of land is under cultivation, and 23,000 new families need land each year. Women do most of the farming-black Bahutu women in bold-patterned sarongs who look up from black furrows of rich volcanic soil and give you thousand-dollar smiles. Rwanda feeds itself, and though it is poor it is at peace, and because it is at peace, and is in the Western camp and surrounded by large, uncoalesced countries where anything could happen-Zaire, Uganda, Tanzania-it gets a lot of aid. The Banyarwanda, whom Dian called' 'woggiepoos," are hardworking, amiable, courteous, easygoing, and quite prudish. Their president, General-Major Juvenal Habyarimana, who came to power in a coup thirteen years ago, is a model of moderation. The main roads, recently paved by the Chinese, are in great shape. Radio communications are excellent; if you want to get hold of someone, you just send a message for him on the radio. The civil servants are at their desks, and they are paid on time. If Africa is Oz, an Africanist in New York told me, Rwanda is the Land of the Munchkins.

      The center of excitement for expatriates in Kigali is the Hotel des Mille Collines, with its pool and lavish buffet. This was where Dian stayed when she came down from the mountain for a little Rand R, put on a smashing dress she had bought on one of her shopping sprees in London, and went partying with her embassy friends. Sooner or later every mzungu (the African term for white person) in Rwanda you are looking for is bound to show up at the Mille Collines.

     Within hours of checking in I ran into David Watts, who had just arrived to take over Dian's job as director of the Karisoke Research Centre-the station for the study of mountain gorillas that she had set up and continued to run for the better part of two decades. David is thirty-five, single, with round wirerimmed glasses and graying hair parted in the middle, a jacket and tie and backpack-a refined, thoughtful individual who looks as though he might play the violin, which he in fact does. He had spent a total of about two years during the late seventies on the mountain with Dian. They had not parted friends. In the last few days he had been making it clear to the Rwandan authorities that he was eager to play ball with themsomething Dian had been singularly uninterested in doing. The gorillas around Karisoke have become very important to the Rwandan economy. They are the fourth most important source of foreign exchange for the country; about six thousand tourists a year, at sixty dollars a head, go up the mountain to see them. The tourists also stay in hotels, rent cars, eat, and buy things.

     A few days after meeting David at the Mille Collines, I went to visit the gorillas with three other Americans. Our guide led us through fields planted with a daisylike flower called pyrethrum, from which a biodegradable insecticide is made. In 1969, about 40 percent of the forest in the Parc des Volcans, where most of the gorillas live, was cleared and planted with pyrethrum for export to the West, but even before the first crop was harvested, cheaper, synthetic insecticides had been developed, and the bottom fell out of the pyrethrum market. That the gorillas' habitat was decimated so that we Westerners, while dumping our hazardous insecticides on the Third World, could have a safe insecticide we didn't even want after all is typical of the ironies of Third World conservation. Just as it is the West, so concerned with saving the gorillas, that provided the outlets for gorilla poaching: until four or five years ago, when public outcry pretty much put a stop to the mountain-gorilla market, wildlife traffickers could get a couple of hundred thousand dollars for one in good condition, physical-anthropology departments at universities were eager to acquire their skeletons or skulls, and thoughtless tourists brought back hands as mementos of their trip to Africa.

     The gorillas we were looking for hang out in the bamboo forest and the nettle meadows on the lower slopes of Mount Visoke. We caught up with them some twenty minutes from where they had been left the day before. There were twelve of them-Ndume, the silverback, his three mates, and eight young ones. They were making their way down a hillside, eating stinging nettle and wild celery as they went. Ndume weighs about three hundred pounds and eats about forty pounds of vegetation a day. He had lost his right hand in a poacher's snare. We sat down fifteen feet from him and waited to see what happened. Our guide had said to make no sudden moves, and if charged to hit the dirt. Ndume knuckle-walked to within two feet of me and sat down, facing the other way, completely ignoring us. His head, with its massive brow ridge and powerful jaws, was huge. After fifteen minutes he ambled over to a comfortable-looking spot and, snorting contentedly, proceeded to sack out. There he remained, dead to the world, limbs akimbo, until we left. The other gorillas circled around us curiously. Safari walked out to the edge of a branch and jumped up and down on it. The branch snapped and she came tumbling down into a thicket and dropped from sight. Kosa, the subdominant male, reached up to a shrub and pulled it toward his mouth, releasing hundreds of fluffy seeds into the air. An unnamed young female walked toward us, briskly beating her chest for a few seconds (it was more like fluttering than pounding, and seemed to be meant more in friendship than intimidation), sat down beside me, put my poncho in her mouth, bashed me on the knee a couple of times, and then went over to her mother. I tried to catch a glint of recognition in the gorillas' soft brown eyes, but they remained glossed over, wild. It was clear, though, that they trusted us, maybe more than they should have.

Page two of Fatal Obsession, The Jungle Death of Diane Fossey

Back to Past Dispatches
Back to Dispatches Home
Visit the Dispatches Discussion Room