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.

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