Remembering my hero – Dian Fossey – 1932-1985

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Thirty years ago, on this day, December 26, 1985, my hero Dian Fossey was killed in her cabin at the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda.   I devoted an entire chapter to her life in my book Guide to Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park: Home to Critically Endangered Mountain Gorillas available on Amazon.com  in softcover and on Kindle.  PLEASE SHARE THIS POST – proceeds from all sales benefit the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.

I hope to return someday.  Would you like to join me?

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 5.

 “When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.”

Last entry in Dian Fossey’s Journal, 1985 

Over the years Dian Fossey has become my conservation hero. At one time I had hoped to meet her, but that hope came to an abrupt end when she was murdered on December 26, 1985.

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n working on this book I have been fortunate to meet a number of people who knew Fossey as far back as the early 1970s. My gorilla guide in 1989, who still works in the park today, Francois Bigirimana, was one of her porters. In 2003 I had the great fortune to meet one of her closest friends, Rosamond Carr. I have met some of her former Karisoke staff and a retired government official who knew her from the U.S. Embassy in Kigali. As I assembled the images to complete this book I was fortunate to get to know by email Dr. Alan Goodall who worked withFossey at Karisoke in 1970.

 In May, 2003, Fidele Uwimana, a Field Data Coordinator who works for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI), guided me up the trail to what was left of her Karisoke Research Camp. As a young man Uwimana knew Fossey when he collected wood and water for her. As we climbed the steep and muddy mountain trail to the saddle between Visoke and Karisimbi peaks, Fidele helped me to imagine Fossey’s life in the Virungas.

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wo hours later we reached the top of the trail and visited the camp and the small little graveyard where Fossey is buried next to some of her favorite gorillas. Nearly everything at the camp was destroyed by rebel soldiers during the genocide and the insecurity that followed. All that remained were the footprints of some of the camp buildings, the gorilla graveyard and the foundation and partial frame of what was a dormitory for the trackers. As I stood under the large Hagenia trees surrounding the camp, I read Fossey’s gravestone:

NYIRAMACHABELLI
DIAN FOSSEY 1932-1985
NO ONE LOVED GORILLAS MORE
REST IN PEACE DEAR FRIEND
ETERNALLY PROTECTED
IN THIS SACRED GROUND
FOR YOU ARE HOME
WHERE YOU BELONG
Nyiramachabelli is Kinyarwandan meaning “lone woman of the forest”.

Nearby were the grave sites of some of her beloved gorillas.
Effie 1951-1994
Kazi 1982-1985
Tiger 1967-1987
Nunkie 1956-1985
Kweli 1975-1978
Uncle Bert 1952-1978
Digit 1965-1977

Visiting the place where Fossey spent so many years studying and protecting the gorillas made for an unforgettable day. I not only could imagine her walking around the camp with her dog Cindy and pet monkey Kima
; I could smell the mountain air and store the memory of her camp and forest surroundings deep within my mind forever.

My good fortune continued during the summer of 2006 when I was invited to speak about thepark and the gorillas at the Las Cruces Museum of Natural History in New Mexico. Little did I know that someone who knew Fossey during her last years living in the Virungas
was in the audience and lived so close to my home in El Paso, Texas. Judy Chidester, a friend of Fossey and a resident of nearby Las Cruces, New Mexico provided me with a special interview.

In late 2012 when working on a revised version of this book, I was able to spend time visiting with Joseph Munyaneza, one of the last persons to see Dian Fossey before she was found murdered on December 27, 1985. Joseph was the first Rwandan graduate student to study under Fossey. On December 22 of that year in a letter Fossey wrote to Rosamond Carr she referred to him as “my wonderful Rwandan student.” While at Karisoke he studied the insects of the Hagenia forest. He had dinner with her and Wayne McGuire, an American researcher, on Christmas Eve. He said that she gave him a calculator and that he would never forget her kindness. Someday I may share more of my interview. He was very close to her and can still picture her 27 years later.

As a child Fossey often dreamed of going to Africa, a goal that she started to seriously plan for in 1960. Three years later on September 23, 1963, after taking out an $8,000 loan, she was on her way to East Africa. In preparing for her trip she read every book about Africa she could get her hands on including a copy of George Schaller’s book, The Year of the Gorilla. She was inspired by Schaller’s mountain gorilla research from his 1959 study in the Virungas. Little did she know that four years later she would find herself continuing Schaller’s research in the same Kabara Meadow where he and his wife came to know one of the world’s most amazing primates.

Fossey is known around the world as the person most responsible for saving the mountain gorilla from extinction. Many first heard of Fossey’s efforts about the same time the western world was experiencing a renewed spirit to reconnect with nature. National Geographic’s January 1970 issue pictured Fossey on the cover with two orphaned baby mountain gorillas. It was published just a few months prior to the first Earth Day celebration in the U.S.

On her first visit Fossey was guided into the park by renowned filmmakers, Joan and Alan Root. Thanks to Dr. Leakey’s support, three years later in December, 1966, arrangements were made for Fossey to return to Africa to begin her monumental research project at Kabara Meadow.

Fossey’s work in Kabara was cut short when she was forced to leave the mountains during a rebellion in the Province of Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC). After a close call with the rebels, she reluctantly moved to the Rwanda side of the Virungas and established a new camp. Karisoke became her research headquarters on September 24, 1967 at 4:30pm. In her book, Gorillas in the Mist, Fossey described how she came up with the name Karisoke: “Kari” for the first four letters of Mt. Karisimbi that overlooked the camp and “the “soke” for the last four letters of Mt. Visoke, whose slopes rose north some 12,172 feet immediately behind the 10,000 foot campsite”.

From 1967 to the last day of her life in 1985, Fossey was totally dedicated to research, conservation and protection of the estimated population of 242 (1981 census) mountain gorillas living in the Virungas. Thanks to her steadfastness, courage and passion, central Africa’s conservation movement was raised another notch. Today the movement remains vibrant and strong as governments expand conservation activities,  international organizations help develop important conservation strategies and African institutions of higher learning facilitate the training of students to fill important conservation positions.

Guide to Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park: Home to Critically Endangered Mountain Gorillas by Rick LoBello available on Amazon.com  in softcover and on Kindle.

Meet the Common Raven

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On a recent trip to Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, I found this Common Raven alongside the road near the main flight deck.  Perhaps it was eating something dead nearby that was hidden in the vegetation.

When I look at this wonderful creature I am reminded of how much I love the natural world and how cool birds like Ravens are.   Normally I see them flying overhead when I am hiking in the mountains, but because they are scavengers and are a resident bird at the refuge, I am not surprised to see one when I drive around the loop drive looking for Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes.

I grew up in Western New York where the most common members of the Crow Family were Common Crows and Blue Jays.   It wasn’t until I moved to Big Bend National Park and worked as a Park Ranger that I started to see Common Ravens on an almost daily basis.  Most members of the Crow Family have reputations as being highly intelligent with some individuals favoring life in suburban areas.   Did you know that a member of the Crow Family living near people requires only 10% of the living space required out in the wild?   The reason for this is pretty easy to see when you watch what they are eating, almost anything they can find including people food.

One day at Panther Junction Park Headquarters where I lived in Big Bend National Park some friends and I were getting ready to cook steaks on the grill.  It was a hot day and the steaks were frozen so we put some on a plate to thaw out on the picnic table.  Not long after we learned an important lesson.  Never thaw a steak outside with Ravens in the neighborhood.   My friend Daniel let out a yell and our local Raven took off for the nearest tree, but not before digging deep into that steak and leaving its mark.

Members of the Crow Family all over the country and in other parts of the world have been successful in living with humans.  In some cases they thrive.  Unfortunately many other species are not able to adapt to our presence where we have now impacted over 80% of the Earth’s surface with some kind of human activity.   According to the IUCN over 22,000 species are now endanger of extinction with species in some part of the globe no doubt going extinct every day.

Let this Raven inspire you today to learn more about wildlife and how to get involved in any way you can in supporting conservation efforts where you live and in other parts of the world.  It doesn’t take long to find an organization out there that is working to make a difference.  With the tax year ending and income tax season just around the corner, consider making a tax deductible donation of any size somewhere or signing up to volunteer offering your time, talents and in-kind resources.   Find a list of local groups you can support here.

Imagine living in Siberia, and not having time for the Internet

 Please read on and be sure to take the “get outside pledge for 2016.”

The BBC reports that Lubov Russkina is 22 years old and lives in Surgut, Siberia where she is part of a nomad reindeer tribe.  Lubov says in this 4 minute video that she does not have time to surf the web.   Wow, I wish I could say that.  Like so many people I know I spend way too much time in front of a computer.

As many contemplate all the great Christmas bargains out there and all the opportunities to become more connected to technology, I ask this question.  Do we really want to become more and more like machines connected to electronic devices?   What can we do to become less connected?   If we lose our connections why would we even care about conserving our natural resources?   Look all around you, how many people do you know who spend 50% or more of their waking hours each day in front of or close to a computer or some other digital screen?  Perhaps you are one of them.

Sign up today for the “Get Outside Challenge 2016”

I know that many who are reading this are concerned so I have a challenge for everyone who wants to make a difference.  Think of ways you can help introduce people you know to the natural world who rarely or if ever walk into a natural landscape.  Set a goal for the coming year.  It’s that time of year you know.  Make a list of all the people you can think of who might be willing to join you ever for a few minutes on a short nature walk in a park, a birdwatching stroll or some other outdoor nature activity.  Make a list of all the cool natural areas you can visit with a friend, neighbor or family member who rarely goes outside to explore the natural world.  How many people can we reach if we all work together in 2016?

Send me your goals by email to ricklobello@gmail.com and I will keep track of everyone’s pledges and report back to you next year at this time.   Just send a number of how many people you want to pledge and then get back to me with a report any time.  I might even send you a few messages of encouragement between now and then.   Is it a deal?