Page 2 of 6 of Fatal Obsession, The Jungle Death of Dian Fossey
Vanity Fair Magazine, September 1986
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    Dian Fossey spent eighteen years on and off among the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. She was to
them what Jane Goodall is to the chimpanzees of Tanzania: she devoted her life to them and made us aware of their existence. In 1967 she pitched camp at 10,000 feet in the Virunga Mountains, a chain of mostly extinct volcanoes along the Zaire and Uganda borders. The world's largest population of Gorilla gorilla beringei-around 240 individuals, in some twenty groups, each led by a dominant silverback male-lives in the Virungas. It took several years before one of the groups would allow her to sit with them while they chomped celery, groomed each other, played, quarreled, and made love. Dian's habituation of the gorillas was all the more remarkable because she did it without "provisioning"; Goodall had to bribe the chimps with bananas to get their cooperation. After 11,000 hours in the field, Dian identified the individuals in four groups from their characteristic noseprints and figured out their probable genealogical relationships; she explored little-understood behavior like infanticide and the migration of females among groups. Her scientific work was, according to a colleague, "very factual and detailed. It had the ring of authenticity. She left the theorizing to others." But it was her popular work-a book, Gorillas in the Mist; three articles in National Geographic; a documentary film about her; and her lectures-that had the greatest impact.

   Dian became a feminist icon in America and England-the prototypical gutsy lady doing her thing. In Rwanda she became a legend. The people called her Nyiramacibili, the Woman Who Lives Alone in the Forest. Dian used her prominence to dispel the myth that gorillas are vicious and dangerous-in fact they are among the gentlest of primates-and to bring their plight to the world's attention. During the late seventies an alarming number of mountain gorillas were killed by poachers. One of the gorillas, whom Dian had named Digit, she had a special rapport with; there was no one Digit's age in his group to play with, so he gravitated to her. On December 31, 1977, Digit was found in the forest with his head and hands hacked off. The grisly murder was announced by Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News, and there was a surge of interest in gorilla conservation.

     After Digit's death, Dian's war with the poachers became personal. She was increasingly abrasive and explosive, and alienated many people. Early on the morning of last December 27, a few weeks before her fifty-fourth birthday, somebody she had alienated badly, or perhaps a hired assailant, broke into her cabin and killed her with a machete. There is no shortage of theories about the brutal murder, but it has not been solved, and it may never be. It may remain hidden in the bosom of Africa forever, along with many other mysteries.

      The modern Western reverence for wild animals, which gave rise to the wildlife-conservation move
ment and impelled Dian to dedicate herself to the mountain gorillas, dates from the late nineteenth century. In the beginning of the movement it was still perfectly fine, while setting parks aside and founding flora-and-fauna-protection societies, to bag a trophy or two. The pioneer conservationist Carl Akeley, for instance, thought mountain gorillas were gentle and wonderful, but had no qualms about shooting several for display in the Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History. It was Akeley who persuaded King Albert of Belgium to include the Virungas in a national park. In 1926 Akeley returned there to do an in-depth field study of the gorillas, but he died of malaria before he could begin, and was buried in the Kabara meadow, about three hours' walk from where Dian would set up her research station.

    It wasn't until the following decade that the first long-term observations of mammals in the wild were made, by the primatologist C. R. Carpenter, who studied howler monkeys on Barro Colorado Island, off Panama. After that there was a lull in overseas fieldwork until the late fifties, when the launching of Sputnik made money available in America for scientific work of all kinds, and biologists such as Irven DeVore of Harvard and George Schaller of the University of Wisconsin were able to go to Africa and study baboons and mountain gorillas in their element. More than anyone it was Schaller who, with subsequent studies of tigers, lions, wild sheep and goats, and pandas, popularized the notion of going out and living with the animal of your choice-field biology. His book on the ecology and behavior of mountain gorillas, published in 1963, had a great effect on Dian, who was then already a confirmed animal lover but was working as an occupational therapist in Louisville, Kentucky, still groping her way to her real lifework.

    Dian was an only child. Her parents divorced when she was little, and when she was six her mother, Hazel, married a builder named Richard Price. There doesn't seem to have been much love between Dian and her stepfather. Until she was ten, she dined in the kitchen with the housekeeper (the Prices lived in San Francisco and were pretty well-off), while her parents ate together in the dining room. As an adult, Dian was estranged from the Prices.

    In general, people who are drawn to nature and become animal lovers fall into two groups, which might be described as the Shakespeareans and the Thoreauvians. The Shakespeareans consider man and his works to be part of nature; while loving animals, they have warm, positive feelings toward people too. The animal love of the Thoreauvians, however, is inversely proportionate to their compassion for their own kind. Often their problems with people, and their sometimes extraordinary empathy with animals, can be traced to a lonely childhood. Most fanatical animal lovers, such as the militant British animal-rights activists who sneak up on fishermen and push them into the river, are Thoreauvians. An other example is Joy Adamson, who did a great deal for lions but was killed by one of her African workers, whom she had abused terribly, in a crime that may closely resemble Dian' s murder.

    When Dian was six she started to take lessons at the St. Francis Riding Academy, and she remained horse-crazy through adolescence. She won a letter on the riding team at Lowell High School, where she excelled academically and shunned the cliques that were so important to the other girls. From Lowell she went to the University of California at Davis to study animal husbandry, but after two years there she switched her major to occupational therapy and transferred to San Jose State. In 1955she was now twenty-three years old and looking for a job-she saw an ad for an occupational therapist at a crippled children's hospital in Louisville and applied, because Kentucky was horse country, she would later say. There she worked with children suffering from polio (this was just before the Salk vaccine) and with inbred mountain children suffering from birth defects; she had a succession of dogs and was "a neat person to be with-generous to a fault, extraordinarily disciplined, with a delightful, self-deprecating sense of humor, tall, slim, perfectly gorgeous," a woman friend recalls.

    In 1963, Dian took out a three-year bank loan and went to Africa to see the animals. At Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania she looked up Louis Leakey, the eminent anthropologist who had revolutionized the study of human origins. From Tanzania she went to the Kabara meadow in the Congo, where Schaller had done his research and Akeley was buried. There she met a couple from Kenya, Joan and Alan Root, who were doing a photographic documentary on mountain gorillas. They took her out to see some. "Peeking through the vegetation, we could distinguish an equally curious phalanx of black, leather-countenanced, furry-headed primates peering back at us," she later wrote. She felt a rush of awe, an immediate connection with the huge, magnificent creatures.

    After seven weeks in Africa, Dian returned to Louisville and her job. She published articles with her photographs of gorillas and got engaged to a wealthy Southern Rhodesian who was studying at Notre Dame. Three years later Louis Leakey came to town on a lecture tour. One of Leakey's pet projects, after his own work with fossils, was to encourage research on man's closest relatives, the great apes-chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas. Leakey had a theory that the best person to go out and study apes was a single woman with no scientific training. Such a person would be unbiased about the behavior she witnessed; unattached, with no responsibilities, she would be willing to work for nothing. A woman would pose less of a threat to the local people (hardly the case with Dian, as it turned out). Women were tougher and more tenacious than men, Leakey believed, and more observant. The truth was, also, that Leakey liked to have women around. He would put them up in a dormitory in the Tigoni Centre for Prehistory and Paleontology in Kenya. There are nearly a hundred Leakey women nobody has ever heard about, who didn't quite make the grade.

    The shrewdness of Leakey's theory had been borne out by Jane Goodall's resounding success with chimps, and later Birute Galdikas would pull through for him with her work on the orangutans of Borneo. But in 1966 he was looking for a "gorilla girl," and after a brief interview with Dian he saw that she had the requisite gumption and offered her the job. Leakey warned her that she would have to have a pre-emptive appendectomy. She swallowed and said no problem. Six weeks later he wrote to say that actually there was no real need for her to have her appendix removed; he had just been testing her determination. But by then it was already out.

   Dian's truly admirable efforts on behalf of the gorillas began with her return to Africa at the end of 1966. She visited Jane Goodall for a few days to see how she had set up her camp, then proceeded to the Kabara meadow, where she hoped to base her study. But the situation in the Congo was precarious. After six months civil war broke out. Dian was taken off the mountain by rebel Congolese soldiers and held in a place called Rumangabo. She persuaded the soldiers to drive with her into Uganda, leading them to believe that they would be getting her Land-Rover and some money she had there. When they reached Uganda she managed to have the soldiers arrested. There is a theory that these same soldiers, whom she made such fools of, were her murderers. The merits of this theory are that Zaire, as the Congo is now called, is only a ten-minute walk from her cabin and the frontier is open, and that the way she was killed is more Zalrois than Rwandan: the Rwandans are a peaceful people who abhor violence. If a Rwandan wanted to kill someone he would use poison. The problem with the the ory-a big one-is why would the soldiers have waited eighteen years?

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


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