How often do you hear of animal rights activists who get killed for their life’s work? Well, okay, it happens sometimes. But have you ever heard of a scientist and conservationist who uses the same brutal tactics on poachers as the poachers themselves use on the animals? Dian Fossey – the “other Jane Goodall” – was a bona fide gorilla whisperer.
She studied them, lived with them, and fought for them. And it was the way she did it that eventually cost her her life. No, she wasn’t killed by one of the gorillas. She was found dead in her cabin in Rwanda. The weapon? A machete. The killer(s)? The poachers whom she made it her life’s mission to destroy.
An Obsessively Dedicated Woman
Christmas 1985 was one to remember, especially for those at the research site Karisoke. For 18 years, the isolated camp that sat 9,000 feet up high in the misty slopes of Rwanda’s Mount Visoke was home to an eccentric (or weird) and obsessively dedicated woman.
Dian Fossey was an American primatologist who set up camp in Rwanda, making gorillas her life’s work. She was 53 that year and had spent decades studying a rare mountain gorilla in its rain forest habitat. She grew more and more hermit-like with the years, but on this Christmas, she felt a bit more social.
A Christmas Feast of Meat and Banana Beer
She opened her two-room tin hut doors to dozens of camp workers and contacts for a feast of meat and urwagwa, the local banana beer. On her door was a wreath and a sign that read “Howdy.” She made lamb for a 34-year-old American graduate student named Wayne McGuire, who was also studying the gorillas, and for Joseph Munyaneza, a Rwandan zoology student.
Two days later, just before 6 a.m. on December 27, screams in Swahili from the guards and trackers woke the camp. McGuire was pulled out of his bed by Fossey’s panicked house servant. They ran the 100 yards to Fossey’s cabin at the other end of the camp.
How Did Dian Fossey Die?
They found Fossey’s cabin in a ransacked mess. Then, they saw Fossey herself, lying face up next to her two beds (she was six feet tall). On the floor next to her were her 9-mm handgun and unused ammunition. “The place was a mess; things were thrown around. Her head was covered with blood,” McGuire later reported.
When McGuire reached down to check her vitals, he saw the slash on her face – one severe, diagonal machete blow. It was soon determined that Fossey’s killer(s) knew the layout of her cabin well and tore away a sheet of tin near her bed.
The Mystery of Dian Fossey
The attackers pillaged the place, but her passport, handguns, cash ($1,200 in US dollars and over $1,700 in traveler’s checks) were left untouched. There was no obvious motive for the killing, at least at first. With time, the depth of Fossey’s dedication to “her” gorillas became known.
People began to tell accounts of Fossey’s vendetta against the poachers who killed some of her gorillas, about her slow and bitter isolation from human beings, about her alleged use of black magic and voodoo – and it all deepened the mystery of Dian Fossey’s murder. Who really was this woman?
She Was No Saint
People were shocked. Who was this “gorilla girl” everyone saw in National Geographic articles, books, films, and talk show appearances? “It’s as if Mother Teresa had just died,” American ecologist Bill Weber shared. He had worked with Fossey in the late ’70s.
“But the Mother Teresas of the world don’t get bludgeoned to death in their bedrooms,” Weber noted. The man has a point. Dian Fossey was no saint. And what Fossey showed the world was not what she showed her enemies. Her patience and love for gorillas contrasted with her intolerance and hate for humans, especially poachers.
V for Vigilante
“Dian had some real enemies and at least one mortal enemy,” Weber stated of his former colleague. Throughout the ‘80s, Fossey led a violent campaign against antelope poachers. These hunters randomly and cruelly killed gorillas who would get accidentally caught in their traps.
If not killed, they would sell the captured gorilla babies to zoos. The government didn’t want their great apes hurt, either, but they weren’t about to permit Fossey’s vigilante behavior, which included interrogations and actual beatings. In fact, Fossey wasn’t even a resident of Rwanda. The government had only granted her short-term renewable tourist visas.
Even the Extreme Get Exhausted
Fossey had a method to her madness. She would usually work with only two or three researchers, and they tended to leave ahead of schedule, complaining of her abusive behavior. Some of them said she underpaid her Rwandan staff and would fire and rehire them on a whim.
The woman was a workaholic, an insomniac, and a chain-smoker who suffered from emphysema, which the cool, damp climate only made worse. By the time she was killed, she had lost the energy it took to make long treks into the rainforest and hadn’t seen her gorillas since September.
Drinking, Writing, and Black Magic
Fossey would drink heavily in the evenings, according to her associates, and stay up until the early morning, working by kerosene lamplight on her letters and magazine articles. You could say – and people have said – that her behavior was bizarre.
“I get a feeling of eeriness here, a feeling of black magic,” McGuire said when he stood near the misty graveyard where Fossey buried the gorillas killed by poachers. “She believed in it, I think, and she had a local reputation for being a witch.”
The Local Witch
Fossey seemed to have exploited the fact that many Africans take witchcraft seriously. She would dress up in a gorilla mask, sneak up on poachers, and dance in the forest – all to frighten the farmers who were intruding on the gorilla habitat.
When a reporter came to visit, she blocked the path of the Rwandan guide with “magical” blades of grass. She warned him, “If you or your people come here again, there will be death.” One associate claimed that Fossey injected a captured poacher with barbiturates.
Don’t F*** With Fossey
When the poacher came back to consciousness, she told him, “This time, I gave you your mind back, but next time I won’t.” McGuire said that when they were searching her belongings after her death, he found a lock of his own hair in an envelope he used to send her a letter.
It was creepy, to say the least, as he remembered once after getting a haircut, she told him it was uneven and offered to clip it for him. “I never realized she had kept the hair… Maybe that’s why she got along with me — she thought she could control my being [through witchcraft].”
Only the Lonely
After the murder, McGuire started sleeping with a loaded rifle, a knife and a machete by his bed. The way he saw it, the isolation really got to Fossey. “A lot of people get strange up here… It’s the loneliness that is hardest to cope with. You forget how to speak English, forget how to interact with humans.”
Fossey herself admitted to how much she hated human interaction. For her, gorillas were the only souls she wanted to interact with. “I have no friends,” she said once. “The more that you learn about the dignity of the gorilla, the more you want to avoid people.”
How Did It Get to This?
Okay, we get it – Fossey loved apes and hated man. But how did it get to that point? Of course, it has a lot to do with her early years. After all, a character like Dian Fossey will, without a doubt, have a childhood worth noting.
Born in San Francisco, the only child to a fashion model mother and insurance agent father, who divorced when she was six, Fossey never had much contact with her father. Her father tried, though; it was her mother who discouraged the relationship.
Animals Made Her Feel Accepted
Her stepdad, Richard Price, never treated Fossey as his own child. He wouldn’t even let her sit at the dining room table with him and her mother at dinner. A strict disciplinarian, Price was essentially emotionally void.
Struggling with insecurity, Fossey learned to turn to animals for the emotional support she wasn’t getting from her parents. It was a way for her to feel accepted. It started with her first pet goldfish, but her love for animals continued and grew deeper throughout her entire life.
The Opportunity of a Lifetime
At six, she started riding horses. By her 1954 graduation, Fossey established herself as an equestrienne. But she still worked with people. She was an occupational therapist, working with crippled children, but in 1963 she got the opportunity of a lifetime.
She went on a seven-week safari in Rwanda, Africa. On the trip, she met renowned anthropologist Louis Leakey, and three years later, he chose her to conduct a long-term study of the mountain gorilla. At the time, Fossey was on the verge of marriage to the heir of a British family with extensive connections in Zimbabwe.
Far From the “King Kong” Monster
But Fossey didn’t care for people, remember? She broke off the engagement and accepted Leakey’s challenge. Almost immediately, Fossey realized that the popular “King Kong” image of the mountain gorilla was far from what they were actually like – shy, gentle, and family-oriented creatures.
Believe it or not, gorillas have a natural fear of humans. But Fossey met them at their level by going down on her knees and knuckles and imitating their behavior. Group members sure got a kick out of seeing her munch on the same greens the gorillas ate.
The “Woman Who Lives Alone in the Forest”
In America and England, Fossey was a feminist icon — a gutsy woman doing her thing. In Rwanda, she was a legend. The people called her “Nyiramacibili,” which means the “Woman Who Lives Alone in the Forest.”
Fossey dispelled the myth that gorillas are vicious and dangerous. Eventually, Fossey was cuddling up to the 400-pound great apes and playing with their babies. Who knew that gorillas – 20 times stronger than a man – like to be tickled? It was her closeness to the gorillas that opened up all these new doors and exciting possibilities for research.
More Research, More Conflict
On the flip side, it meant problems. She now found herself in bitter conflict with the locals, especially the Rwandan farmers who were desperate for land. Because of them, the gorillas were being pushed to higher, colder altitudes. Some even died from pneumonia.
During the late ‘70s, an alarming number of gorillas were being killed by poachers. Fossey was not a happy camper. Meanwhile, poachers were taking their toll. In the ‘60s, the Rwandan government turned over about half of the national park, where the gorillas were living, to farming.
Becoming a Guerilla Soldier
The gorilla population was eventually cut in half as a result. In the ‘70s, Fossey went from great ape researcher to guerilla soldier. Fossey was in a war against the poachers. And she was extreme in her ways; she burned down their houses, cut trap lines, and placed bounties on poachers’ heads.
She killed their cattle and ordered her students to carry guns. People who knew her said she would pistol-whip captives to make them name other poachers. She would also pay the government’s park guards to bring the captured poachers to her for interrogation.
Diplomacy Is for Suckers
In other words, she did what she had to do. “Dian Fossey was to gorillas what Greenpeace is to whales,” said Ian Redmond, a wildlife biologist who spent two years at Karisoke but never participated in Fossey’s interrogations.
Fossey didn’t care about diplomacy and what was legal or not. She had one thing to protect: the gorillas. But, as Redmond put it, Fossey was in many ways like the gorillas she loved… Under the screaming and shouting, she was a “gentle, loving person.”
V for Vengeance
Bill Weber, for one, disagrees. Weber and his wife Amy worked for the Mountain Gorilla Project in Rwanda, and they believe it was Fossey’s relentless war against the poachers that led to the slaughter of her favorite group of gorillas.
On December 31, 1977, Fossey’s favorite gorilla, Digit, was speared to death and beheaded in a trap by the very antelope poachers she hated with a vengeance. Fossey wanted revenge for this particular killing. It was announced by Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News, leading to a surge of interest in gorilla conservation.
Sh*t Just Got Personal
Digit’s death made the war against the poachers personal. Within six months, most of her group was wiped out. “I have no husband, children. It’s just me and the gorillas,” Fossey had said. The poachers essentially wiped out her family.
“Dian decided to deal with the poachers her own way,” Weber shared. She grew increasingly explosive and alienated most of the people in her life. It might be why she decided to take a bit of time off in 1980 after she received her doctorate in zoology and took 18 months to teach at Cornell University.
The War Was Far From Over
When she returned in 1983, she was more mellow, according to her associates. She even gave credit to the government and the Mountain Gorilla Project for clamping down on poachers. But Fossey was still mad. She kept capturing and interrogating poachers, resorting to her good old scare tactics and black magic.
If you ask Redmond, it was her meddling in magic that got her killed. Only after her murder did Redmond learn that she wrote a letter to him that he never received in the mail. Dated November 24, 1985 (a month before her death), she described a captured poacher who was brought to her cabin for questioning.
The Lost Letter
In the letter, she called the poacher “bloody kali” (Swahili for “fierce”). She wrote about what happened next: “I gently examined his clothing and found three packets of sumu [magic charms]—bits of skin and vegetation, all looking like vacuum cleaner debris.”
“I still have them. Nasty lady. It was like taking a nipple from a baby. He just deflated after I took them.” Fossey went into her bedroom to get cash for the guards, and when she came out, she found three guards restraining the poacher from stealing the magic charms, which she placed out of reach on the mantelpiece.
Did Magic Get Her Killed?
The “fierce” poacher was later jailed. According to Redmond, the poacher, like all Rwandan prisoners, had access to his family and might have contacted assassins to break into Fossey’s cabin, kill her and get the magic charms.
“This man had something he felt was of vital importance as protection to himself, and Dian took it,” Redmond explained. “I think it explains the illogical nature of the crime, that they searched the house and didn’t steal anything valuable to a European.” It’s a logical theory, and Weber and McGuire both think it’s possible.
She Couldn’t Save Herself
However, the magic charms were never taken. Redmond found the “sumu” with some of Fossey’s “junk.” He suggested that the killers simply didn’t know what to look for and where. After all, each person’s sumu is unique.
On the night of her murder, Fossey failed to wake up in time to save herself. Her emphysema reduced her voice to a weak croak, so even if she had been awake, she wouldn’t have been able to call for help. Anyways, the others in the camp were too far away to hear her.
Too Many Prints on the Machete
As it happens with some people, only after their deaths do people begin to speak, and certain things come to light. After Fossey’s funeral, five of her trackers — the “Bahutu” she hired from surrounding villages — were put in prison and held for months without charges.
The panga, the name for the local machete used to kill her, the one that was found under her bed, was from the same camp as her trackers. The thing is that the prints on the weapon were unobtainable because the machete had been passed around from hand to hand at the scene of the crime.
A Very American Thing to Do
Some think the trackers were only taken into custody because of a cultural misunderstanding. At Fossey’s funeral, Amy Vedder (Bill Weber’s wife who worked for the conservation) went up to one of the trackers and hugged him.
It was a very American thing to do – not Rwandan at all. Rwandans shake hands; they don’t hug. The police at the funeral were looking for anything out of the ordinary. They knew that there was bad blood between Fossey and Amy, so when they saw her hug the tracker, they assumed the two of them were in cahoots.
Her Mortal Enemy
The theories kept coming about who was responsible for her murder. If Fossey had one mortal enemy among all her foes, it was the poacher Munyarukiko. The man was a real killer, and he hated Fossey as much as she hated him. She broke into his house once and destroyed his stuff and kidnapped his boy.
The boy was treated well and actually told Fossey a lot about the poaching. It was Munyarukiko who was responsible for the death of Digit and another gorilla named Uncle Bert. Some think it was a vendetta against Fossey.
His Sweet Revenge
It could easily be theorized that Munyarukiko took his sweet revenge by killing her gorillas one by one before he finally got to her. But then again, Munyarukiko died in 1978, or at least that’s what Fossey heard from local informants.
One story has it that the poacher ran away with a woman to Uganda, after which her people tracked them down and killed him. But is he really dead? It’s hard to say. What we do know, however, is that it wasn’t until 2001 that the suspect in Fossey’s murder was named…
The Dangerous Mr. Z
In 2001, the murder suspect was finally named. A 63-year-old Rwandan official named Protais Zigiranyirazo was accused of masterminding the murder of Fossey and arrested in Belgium. Zigiranyirazo was also a wanted man for playing a key role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide (during which 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus were murdered).
Zigiranyirazo was known to his men as Monsieur Z and is the brother-in-law of the former Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana. It was Habyarimana’s death in 1994 that sparked the genocide. Mr. Z allegedly had Fossey killed because she discovered that he was selling baby gorillas to European zoos, which apparently required killing the baby’s whole family.
Exposing Mr. Z
Upon learning of the gorillas being sold to zoos, Fossey allegedly stormed into Mr. Z’s office and went ballistic on him. Fearless, she called him every name in the book, right in front of his employees. The factor that really put her name on the hit list was her reported plan to expose Mr. Z.
She was about to publicly announce that Zigiranyirazo was behind the poaching of an endangered species and the smuggling of gold that was floating in and out of Rwanda. In the end, Zigiranyirazo was never charged with the murder of Dian Fossey. He remains a free, 83-year-old man.
Haters and Lovers
How much of Fossey’s war was motivated by concern for the gorillas, and how much it was just an outlet for her hate of people, especially the Africans? It may never be known. With a woman as divisive as Dian Fossey, there are going to be those who condemn her methods and those who support her.
People either loved her or despised her. Those who loved Fossey were typically women who knew her in the US, socially, or through her letters. On the other hand, the Fossey haters were fellow scientists who were on the mountain with her.
The Photographer Who Had Her Back
A man named Bob Campbell happened to be one of those who stood by her along the way. In 1968, National Geographic, which was sponsoring Fossey, sent photographer Campbell to film her at work. Campbell was a tall, quiet, and kind Kenyan who developed a “tender” relationship (as one of their friends phrased it) with Fossey.
You see, Campbell was married at the time. He would stay for several months at a time on the mountain with Fossey until 1972. “Bob was perfect for her—a calming influence,” the same friend recalled.
People Didn’t Realize…
He made a film about Fossey, where you can visibly tell how self-conscious she was. She was always unconfident about her six-foot frame and was known to complain to friends that she wished she was more “stacked.”
She seemed happy at the time, with Campbell and her gorillas. But the truth was she was “under enormous pressures that few people knew about,” Campbell stated. According to the photographer, Fossey had to construct the camp and keep it going. “It was very hard to get supplies, and her funds were meager.”
A Souring Experience
He noted how there were many students who didn’t work out — those who came to the bush looking for a fabulous life but couldn’t handle the harsh conditions. Campbell said that Fossey had suffered severely during the Congo rebellion in the ‘60s.
When asked if she was tortured, Campbell replied “no,” but added that she was “always reluctant to describe it.” Campbell revealed that Fossey was sexually molested “and this experience set her attitudes toward the local people.”
Her Unofficial Partner
“Others would have quit,” he shared. But Fossey wasn’t like others. In Campbell’s eyes, she had “guts and willpower and an urgent desire to study the gorillas, and that was what kept her up there.”
According to Campbell, his relationship with Fossey was “close enough that she didn’t want me to leave,” he said. Although he was hired to document her work with pictures, she started to rely on him for many other things, like running the staff and dealing with the students.
He Left, She Cried
After six months, the two reached an agreement – they were both up there for the gorillas. Even with that established, Campbell still left before his assignment was completed. Friends say that Fossey was devastated by his departure.
They think that the part of her that yearned for a partner and children was shattered. After her hiatus in America in 1983, when she taught for a year and a half, she returned to Rwanda. Fossey said, in a serious tone at the time, that she had come home to die.
America Was No Longer Her Home
Her time in America was a nice break, but there was no place for her there anymore. Her students and others found her aloof and intimidating. For those Westerners who know what it’s like to live outside of the West, coming back home is the hardest part.
Fossey is buried under a circle of stones that sits just above the cabin where she was murdered. The pine coffin was provided by the American Consulate. Beside her name are all the names of the gorillas killed by poachers.
A Mother to Her Gorillas
It becomes clear, then, that this is actually a family plot. The gorillas really were her family. When she gave up on humans, gorillas took their place. She loved them like a mother. After all, women (most at least) would only do what Fossey did to protect their own.
Fossey would be happy to hear that she is credited with reversing the diminishing mountain gorilla population, and the population is continuing to rise. Fossey’s story was portrayed in the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist, starring Sigourney Weaver (as Fossey) and Bryan Brown (as Campbell).