Tuesday January 17, 2006
Dian Fossey’s legacy
By HELEN VESPERINI
As King Kong trampled the box office, Rwanda quietly remembered US primatologist Dian Fossey, who put the film ape’s inspiration, the mountain gorilla, on the map and most likely saved it from extinction.
Twenty years after her brutal murder at the remote hilltop research station she called home for nearly two decades, Fossey’s legacy still looms large in the inhospitable Virunga Mountains where many of the world’s remaining 700 mountain gorillas live.
Yet her life and work – depicted in the 1988 Hollywood blockbuster Gorillas in the Mist – and the still mysterious circumstances of her death evoke deeply conflicted emotions in this corner of central Africa that is struggling to shake off the horror of genocide.
A longtime foe of “gorilla tourism” on which impoverished Rwanda now depends for much-needed revenue, Fossey would likely have been appalled that her gravesite has become a mecca for primate enthusiasts, according to those who knew her.
Despite Fossey’s feelings on the matter and the gruelling climb to the 3,000m Karisoke site through jungle forest, giant stinging nettles, mud, buffalo dung and gorilla droppings in the Volcanoes National Park, visitors are coming.
“It’s a tough trek for a lot of people,” says Rosette Rugamba, the head of Rwanda’s Tourism and National Parks Office which reports that between 20 to 50 tourists have made the trip each month since October, accompanied by guides and Kalashnikov-toting soldiers.
It is here, on a saddle between the Karisimbi and Visoke volcanoes, that Fossey lived, studied her beloved gorillas and was hacked to death with multiple machete blows to the head on the day after Christmas in 1985, just weeks before her 54th birthday.
Karisoke is a largely desolate place and all that is left of Fossey’s wooden cabin are the remains of the concrete structure on which it stood. A small wooden sign says she affectionately called it “the mausoleum”.
Further on lies the “Gorillas’ Graveyard” where Fossey buried her charges under simple wooden markers. She was eventually laid to rest among them, interred next to her favourite primate, Digit, who was also murdered by persons unknown.
“No one loved gorillas more,” says the stone over Fossey’s grave, a testament shared by her former colleagues.
“She would stay in her cabin for three days or even a week to mourn any gorilla that died,” says Jean-Baptiste Majumba, who worked with Fossey for 10 years and is now a guide with the national park service.
All those who worked with her remember her generosity towards them and their families, particularly at holidays, like Christmas, when she threw parties, he said.
“There would be beer and drink and food and dancing and then everyone would be given an envelope with money inside,” said Majumba.
At the foot of the mountain, in the village of Bisate, memories of Fossey are clear but mixed, with old men recalling the clothes she wore and the precise words of random conversations they had with her in the 18 years she was their neighbour.
“She never wore a skirt like other women,” says Francis d’Assise Nyandwi, as numerous other villagers nodded in agreement.
“The way she lived year-after-year in the bush like that was extraordinary. It must have taken courage,” says Francois Ndagijimana, a peasant farmer of 45.
Emmanuel Ntirubabarira, now 59, remembers taking his father’s cows to graze on the mountain and earning stern rebukes from Fossey who regarded the cattle as a threat to the gorillas.
“Everytime she would see me, she’d say in Swahili ‘Take your cows away from here. It’s dangerous’,” Ntirubabarira said.
When the herders refused to cooperate, Fossey had no qualms about shooting the cows.
“She had a pistol,” said Majumba. “Sometimes she’d shoot to kill, sometimes just to maim the cows. Eventually, people gave up and took their cows away.”
But if Fossey took a hard line with the cowherds, she took a far harder one with Batwa pygmies whose snares, intended to catch antelope, often snagged gorillas in the park. She paid trackers to catch illegal hunters and drag them to the police station in Ruhengeri, the nearest large town.
Fossey’s toughness earned her many enemies, among them poachers, gorilla traffickers and Rwandan officials annoyed by her refusal to allow any human habitation of the park, but the identity of her killer remains unclear 20 years later.
Regardless of her personal reputation, Fossey’s landmark studies and the continuing work of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund are credited with a huge role in preserving the world’s fewer than 700 wild mountain gorillas that live between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
“Had it not been for Dian Fossey there wouldn’t be any gorillas left today,” said Bosco Bizumuremye, a park guide. – AFP