National Geographic : 2017 Sep
thE gORIllAS DIAN FOSSEY SAvED 117 documenting a unique moment—not only the increase in population of a critically endangered species but also the possible revision of the rules assumed to govern its social behavior. ON AN OvERCASt MORNINg, with temperatures in the mid-50s, it takes me nearly two hours to hike from the outskirts of Bisate through calf-deep mud and shoulder-high nettles to the research site established in 1967 by Fossey in the high-elevation saddle between Mounts Karisimbi and Visoke. The camp, which Fossey named Karisoke, began with two tents and grew to include more than a dozen cabins and outbuildings in a grove of moss-shrouded Hagenia trees, 80 feet tall. Today, as in Fossey’s day, a profusion of ferns, vines, and grasses seems to tint the humid air green, and a stream flows past the clearing. When the corpse of an infant gorilla disappeared, Fossey spent countless hours hunched on this stream bank examining adult dung for irrefutable evidence of cannibalism, but she never found it. After an intruder murdered Fossey in her bed in 1985—a crime that remains a mystery— researchers continued to work at Karisoke. The camp shut down in 1994 during the Rwandan genocide, and rebels traversing the forest ran- sacked it. Today the much expanded Karisoke Research Center operates out of a modern of- fice building in nearby Musanze, and the only man-made traces of Fossey’s site are foundation stones and the occasional stovepipe. Despite the climb, drenching rains, and tem- peratures that can drop into the 30s, some 500 pilgrims a year trek to Karisoke to pay tribute to Fossey. Many know her from her book Gorillas in the Mist, which inspired the 1988 movie. On my visit, though, I have the place mostly to myself. As I explore the grounds, trying to imagine Fos- sey’s life here, porters quietly scrape lichen from the wooden signs that mark the graves of 25 go- rillas. Just outside this rustic cemetery, a bronze plaque rises over Fossey herself. The tall, outspoken Fossey was not univer- sally beloved. Many locals considered her an interloper or a witch, who not only confounded cultural norms but also presented an existential threat to those who depended on the forest for sustenance. From the start, Fossey made clear her priorities. She chased herders and their cat- tle out of the park: The animals trampled the plants that gorillas favored and forced them up- slope to temperatures they couldn’t withstand. Every year she destroyed thousands of traps and snares intended to catch antelope and buffalo. The snares didn’t kill gorillas outright but often Fossey, wearing a skull mask in this photo shot in 1969, took advantage of herders’ beliefs in sorcery to try to frighten them and their cattle from the forest. She also demolished traps, beat poachers with stinging nettles, and raided their camps.