National Geographic : 2017 Sep
124 NAtIONAl gEOgRAphIC • SEptEMbER 2017 Rwanda barely tolerated Fossey when she was alive—authorities repeatedly denied her visa ap- plications and stymied her efforts to halt poach- ing. But the country was quick to realize that her death and burial within a national park, Vecellio says, “had enormous symbolic value. It created a sense of urgency and brought international support for gorilla conservation.” Last year more than 30,000 people hiked into the park, each pay- ing the Rwanda Development Board, which over- sees the nation’s tourism, $750 for a gorilla-group encounter limited to one hour. The fees, which recently jumped to $1,500, pay for security and monitoring, and they ensure the government’s commitment to protecting the species. For the safety of animals and humans, the de- velopment board allows only eight people in each trekking group. But with more groups of gorillas, more visitors than ever can have their primal mo- ment. Higher visitation means more money is fun- neled, through a revenue-sharing plan, into local communities, and it creates ripple opportunities for businesses. During the high season, tourists fill more than 20 hotels and guesthouses in and around Musanze—the town had just one when Fossey arrived—generating income for drivers, housekeepers, waiters, chefs, bartenders, guards, farmers, park guides, porters, and trackers. Tourism opportunities may expand even more. The Rwandan government, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is con- sidering the construction of a climate research sta- tion on the summit of Mount Karisimbi, at 14,787 feet. A cable car would whisk scientists to their instruments and tourists to crater-top zip lines. Worried that the project could destroy gorilla hab- itat, conservation groups are calling for a compre- hensive study of its environmental impacts. It’S lAtE MORNINg before my guide locates the Sabyinyo group, a short hike from the park boundary, through a dim bamboo forest. As the rain that has been pelting lets up, we hear the animals—stripping and munching the scenery—well before we spot them. A mountain of muscle, the silverback Gihishamwotsi sits in a clearing of crushed ferns and giant lobelias, pinched off limbs that became gangrenous or fa- tally infected. Fossey captured and beat poachers with stinging nettles, burned down their huts, confiscated their weapons, and once even took a poacher’s child hostage. But her most effective tactic—and an enduring part of her legacy—was paying locals to patrol the park and insisting that Rwandan authorities enforce antipoaching laws. Fossey was a polarizing figure, but as Jane Good- all, the chimpanzee expert, once said, “If Dian had not been there, probably there might have been no mountain gorillas in Rwanda today.” Contemplating the simple plaque on Fossey’s headstone, I’m struck by all that was extraordi- nary about this pioneer: her 18 years in the forest, her epic battles for funding, and her struggles for academic legitimacy, physical health, and emo- tional connection. It’s beyond irony that Fossey showed the world a largely peaceable realm of af- fectionate gorilla families, while her own life was characterized by bitterness and mistrust. “She was alone and hated by many,” says Vecellio, who describes herself as a lifelong Fossey “superfan.” Fossey’s grave lies just a few steps from that of Digit, the silverback whom she reluctantly turned into a fund-raising bonanza—by creating the Dig- it Fund—after he was stabbed and decapitated by poachers. Fossey was desperate for money to pay her trackers and antipoaching teams. But she hat- ed the idea of generating revenue from ecotour- ism, and she considered gorilla tourists—who began arriving at Karisoke, against her wishes, in 1979—a driver of gorilla extinction. And yet it was Fossey’s knack for publicizing her studies through lectures and articles that turned the gorillas into causes célèbres. It was also Fossey who figured out how to habituate gorillas to humans, without which the tourist trade wouldn’t exist. Fossey showed the world affectionate gorillas, while her own life was filled with bitterness.