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Dian Fossey was brutally murdered in 1985, her attacker or attackers splitting her skull with a machete, the type commonly used by poachers. She was found in the bedroom of her cabin in Virunga Mountains, Rwanda, and had apparently tried to load her pistol during the attack. To this day her killer or killers have not been found.

While Fossey worked primarily as a zoologist in the mountain forests of Rwanda, she was also involved in strenuous and time consuming anti-poaching activities. While it was illegal to poach gorillas in the Virunga mountains, this law was barely enacted by local authorities, who would pretty much turn a blind eye. Fossey single handedly took it upon herself to police the poachers and confiscate their traps. Speculation abounds as to whether she was murdered by the poachers, or if the Rwandian authorities had got sick of her presence and determination to protect the gorillas from human intervention – either for tourist purposes, or poaching them to ship them off to European zoos.

Fossey described her type of conservation as ‘active’. The meaning is pretty clear. She was a hands-on practitioner who believed 100 per cent in enforcing the law and making those who broke it pay the penalty. She dismissively characterised ‘theoretical’ conservation as the type that ticked all the boxes, but didn’t do the hard work of enforcement. Theoretical conservation was all motherhood statements, while active conservation meant risk taking and putting oneself on the line to make positive outcomes happen, even when this unsettled the status quo or threatened the interests of a powerful few.

Eighteen Years Following and Making Contact with the Gorillas

Gorillas in the Mist is Dian Fossey’s memoir covering her 18 years of closely following and making contact with gorilla groups in the Rwandian mountain forests. Fossey first started her work in the late 1960s, and was still actively involved in field work up to her death in 1985. This was hard, unglamorous work that demanded a certain level of fitness and fortitude (one is amazed at Fossey’s nicotine addiction, and how she managed to track gorillas through such tough terrain with her worsening emphysema). The weather was frequently damp, and Fossey in one section of the book describes a typical day of waking up and having to put on wet clothes and then scythe her way through dense mountain vegetation to follow the gorillas.

Fossey’s style if often light and cheerful, and she is fond of making jokes. When describing the gorilla’s habit of eating their own dung (perhaps, it is speculated, in order to get vitamin B12 which is fermented in the stomach), she called such fare “instantly warmed TV dinners”. The breeziness of the narrative, and her uncomplaining attitude to hardships, is occasionally interrupted by passages of terrible grief and trauma. When one of the gorillas, Digit, is killed by poachers, Fossey recorded her feelings in this deeply moving passage:

“There are times when one cannot accept facts for fear of shattering one’s being. As I listened to Ian’s news all of Digit’s life, since my first meeting with him as a playful little ball of black fluff ten years earlier, passed through my mind. From that moment on, I came to live within an isolated part of myself.”

There would be many more gorilla deaths due to the activities of the poachers. The reason so many gorillas die is that, when the poachers try to kidnap one of the younger gorillas, all the family members fight to the death to protect them. Fossey had many of these gorillas buried outside her cabin, where she would eventually also be laid to rest.

A Social History of the Mountain Gorillas

The most extraordinary thing about Gorillas in the Mist is that it presents a social history of the various gorilla groups that Fossey studied and the family groupings within those groups. Fossey named all of the gorillas she followed, also describing in minute detail their personalities and the strategies they used to survive and thrive in those groups. As you read about the many different gorillas and their interactions – great gorilla personalities like Digit, Macho, Uncle Bert, Beethoven, Effie, Peanuts and Coco – you almost start to merge the gorillas into human personalities. Hence Gorillas in the Mist almost reads like the history of a group of people. Of course Fossey gives lots of other zoological information that she learns about the gorillas, like dietary and mating habits, but overall the book concerns itself with the personalities and politics of the gorilla groups.

The reader comes away from Gorillas in the Mist with a deep respect for Dian Fossey. She must certainly have been part nut case to take on the hard and physically demanding work of gorilla tracking. Only a person totally obsessed could put up with the conditions, non-existent pay and constant battling with the poachers. But as Fossey always told her students, their pay was the privilege of working with the gorillas. Nor was Fossey some airy headed idealist. She knew the poverty of the Rwandian people, how over populated and hard pressed for land they were, and that conservation of the gorilla population was the last of their pressing problems.

Gorillas in the Mist is a unique journey into the mountain forests of Africa to meet a gorilla society, and experience their struggles and joys. It also raises many complex questions about the ethical treatment of animals and human responsibility for natural conservation.

Gorillas in the Mist, by Dian Fossey. Published by Phoenix. ISBN: 9-780753-811412

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