December 6, 2017 7:37 pm
No One Loved Gorillas More: Dian Fossey’s Life, Tragic Death, and Her Unparalleled Love of Gorillas in Nat Geo’s “Secrets in the Mist”
Today’s guest post is by Natalia Reagan, primatologist, anthropologist and StarTalk All-Stars host.
If there is one person we can say with a fair degree of certainly not only saved an entire species (subspecies, in this case) BUT also changed the way an animal was perceived by the world at large, it’s Dian Fossey. The animal? Mountain gorillas A.K.A. Gorilla beringei beringei.
As a preschooler, I had recurring King Kong Nightmares.* I would hear the sound of heavy footsteps in the distance coming steadily closer. I tried to hide but, alas, the beast could smell me. I cowered in horror as the beast ripped the roof off our house and ate my family, one by one. And then he reached in and plucked me from the cold floor and gobbled me up.
One night all that changed. When I was eight years old, I discovered a new and powerful skill; lucid dreaming. Once I realized I was dreaming, I could control and alter my dreams to my liking. I remember hearing the booming steps of Kong in the distance and waited for Kong to rip off the roof and eat me whole- but this didn’t happen. I ran and opened the front door, and there standing before me wasn’t a 50-foot tall angry gorilla, but a 4-foot-tall orangutan that promptly put his arms around me for a hug.
And just like that, I was no longer afraid of gorillas. In fact, I was completely enamored by them and all other primates, and twenty some odd years later (emphasis on “odd”), I became a primatologist.
I was not alone in my fears of gorillas. The King Kong movies and the early descriptions of gorillas left many thinking that these not-so-distant cousins were fierce and aggressive beasts. However, it turns out my lucid dreaming got it right. Gorillas are not terrifying beasts eager to harm humans, they are gentle, giant vegetarians that spend more time raising offspring than raising hell.
Why do we know this? The work of Dian Fossey.
Fifty years ago, Dian Fossey established the Karisoke field site, combining the name of Mt. Karisimbi and Mt. Bisoke. Fossey had been picked by the famous paleoanthropologist, Louis Leakey, to carry out long-term studies of mountain gorillas in remote Rwanda. Even Jane Goodall, renowned chimpanzee researcher, has said about Fossey, “if Dian hadn’t done what she had, there would be no gorillas left in Rwanda to study.” Her story is now chronicled in Nat Geo’s latest mini series Dian Fossey: Secrets in the Mist. The three-part series, which begins airing Wednesday December 6th at 9/8 central on Nat Geo, is equal parts murder mystery, biography, and wildlife documentary.
The series’ title was inspired by Gorillas in the Mist, the critically acclaimed autobiography written by Fossey, that was also the basis for the movie about her life starring Sigourney Weaver. Weaver reprises her role as Fossey in this series, lending her voice to Fossey’s diary entries & letters.
For those of you who do not know who Dian Fossey was, this mini-series does a superb job of weaving together the story of Fossey’s life, work, and tragic murder. The three parts alternate between descriptions of her work and investigation of her untimely death- a still unsolved murder. Thirty-two years ago, Dian Fossey was brutally murdered on the day after Christmas. The mystery surrounding her violent death is portrayed in dramatizations and analyzed, piece by piece in the three parts of the series.
In each episode close friends and colleagues talk about the passionate – sometimes difficult – person Fossey was. She was absolutely dedicated to her gorillas and paid the ultimate price for their survival: her life. Her former research assistants and colleagues, including Ian Redmond, Kelly Stewart, and Wayne McGuire, detail her day-to-day life at Karisoke. Secrets in the Mist makes it clear that Fossey had a singular vision – save the mountain gorillas – and because of this, she was prone to volatility if people stood in her way.
During her time in Rwanda, poachers were killing and decapitating mountain gorillas, taking their heads and hands to sell at local markets. The hands were often turned into ashtrays while the skulls served as trophies to sell to westerners on holiday. Simply typing these words makes my blood boil, so I can only imagine Dian’s rage as she discovered that her favorite gorilla, Digit, was murdered, beheaded, and hands severed. Her anger, though warranted, led her to making enemies with poachers.
Despite occasional spikes in gorilla poaching, Dian’s long-term research she began at Karisoke fifty years ago has resulted in a marked increase in mountain gorilla populations. I spoke to Dr. Tara Stoinski, the CEO of Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, and she weighed in about change in the population of mountain gorillas after Dian’s work. When asked about the mountain gorilla population then versus now, Stoinski said, “where Dian worked there are two separate populations of mountain gorillas left and they are not contiguous – they do not touch each other. Where Dian worked they are called the Virunga Mountain gorillas and when we was there they were down to 240 and they have doubled…and now stand at 480 individuals and there is a totally separate population of 400 individuals that is called the Bwindi population. So total of the subspecies there are 880, but they are not together so they cannot breed so that limits the transfer of genetic material and even at 880 they are one of the most endangered animal on the planet. So it’s great that the numbers are increasing but they are certainly not out of the woods by any means.”
If you’d like to listen to the interview, here it is:
Dedicated rangers and researchers played a great role in the substantial increase in the mountain gorilla population. The series touches on how the Rwandan government was not an avid supporter of Fossey during her time there and how she had to advocate to keep her visa and stay in the country. Since her death, however, Rwanda has embraced gorilla conservation and gorilla tourism, as it brings in substantial revenue for the east African nation. Stoinski added, “the really wonderful thing is the way that the country is 100% behind and leads all the conservation activities that occur in Rwanda and when you have that level of support all the way at the top, it makes a huge difference on the ground.”
Stoinski has studied gorillas for the past 25 years and was heavily influenced by Fossey’s work. However, even though Fossey’s research deeply impacted her own, Stoinski noted that Fossey has lost relevance with millenials. “She’s been dead for 32 years so the younger people don’t know her story, they don’t know her legacy, they don’t know her work is still continuing, that we have 160 staff in Africa protecting gorillas every single day in Rwanda and Congo, so we were thrilled when National Geographic expressed this interest in doing work on her.”
She went on to say, “They (National Geographic) went to Rwanda to actually film descendants of Group Five which is now Pablo’s group. So they worked with our team there, our teams were supporting them to go into the forest to tell them who these animals were and what their individual stories were.”
In episode three of the series, the audience can see the descendants of Fossey’s original study groups. These beautiful images of gorillas groups engaging in play, cuddling, and displaying endless curiosity drive home the point that even after her death, Fossey’s legacy lives on. According to Stoinski, “a number of people thought that when she passed away the organization would stop as well but it didn’t. It’s continued on.”
Dian Fossey’s headstone reads, “Nyiramachabelli: No one loved gorillas more”. “Nyiramachabelli” is a local Rwandan term that means “the woman who lives alone on the mountain”. However, Dian wasn’t alone; she had her gorillas. And her gorillas had her.
This holiday season please consider giving the gift of saving mountain gorillas! You can sponsor a gorilla by donating to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.
* Confession: I still get them.
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