I remember as a little girl, living in the Gambia, being with a group of school children to listen to a talk about chimpanzees from a woman, with straight, thin, silvered blond hair and a low, soft comforting voice that told us about her love for and experience with her beloved primates, in calm and measured tones. She spoke of reintroducing captive chimpanzees to the wild and having to use pincers on their butts, to get them to sleep in trees, rather than on the ground. She feared a chimp would become too comfortable living on the ground and make itself prone to predation. I believe this woman was Jane Goodall.
This would have been likely within the same year as the death of Dian Fossey on December 26, 1985. My first personal contact with a non human primate was about the year 1987 when my family took our weekend trip to the islands off the coast of Guinea. An American-French couple had brought their chimpanzee with them. It was a juvenile and wore a diaper. (I am not going into the proper morality, nor scientific construct, if there is one, for keeping chimpanzees as pets at this moment.) I was standing on the beach, and was six years old at the time.
The chimp had been made confused and ran along the golden-white sands screeching, and at that age, as now, I was tall. I was five feet by the age of eight. The chimp, ran up to me and wrapped all four appendages around my right leg. He looked about and screamed as if he wanted me to do something and I just looked down at him. He quieted for a moment, looked up into my face and froze with the thought, "Wait, you're not my mommy," written on his face. He then took off to find his real mommy, or so it seemed.
I find it intriguing how Fossey's love for gorillas began before she knew them. She came to Africa in September 1963, with two of her main goals being, "to visit the mountain gorillas of Mt. Mikeno in the Congo and to meet Louis and Mary Leaky at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. Both wishes came true."
For her, in her first encounter, "Sound preceded sight. Odor preceded sound in the form of an overwhelming musky-barnyard human-like scent. The air was suddenly rent by a high-pitched series of screams followed by the rhythmic rondo of sharp pok-pok chest beats from a great silverback male obscured behind what seemed an impenetrable wall of vegetation."
I will never fail to be amazed at the trust Fossey has in approaching animals who are so much stronger and seem weary of human contact. But she did. In the black and white photos of my 2000 Mariner Books edition, it is amazing how submissive her movements and mannerisms toward these creatures are. She is saying, "It is your world, but may I be so bold as to be your guest?" The gorillas said, "yes."
And so came nineteen years of a life solely devoted to a specie, of two hundred and forty mountain gorillas, that has a singular home of twenty-five miles long and varies in width from six to twelve miles, upon "six extinct mountains within the Virunga Volcanoes."
And I would prefer to go by the book version of the story rather than the film on this take. Despite breathtaking shots of Sigourney Weaver as Fossey among the gorillas, the film portrays the scientist as a renegade loser who begged Leakey to work with gorillas because she was used to being around disabled children. Fossey served for eleven years as an occupational therapist and her background did consist of a majority of science courses at the university level, before she began work with gorillas. The film is in part based on, "the work by Dian Fossey," and "the article by Harold T.P. Hayes" who later wrote the novel, The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey.
The Gorillas in the Mist novel is based on extensive field notes and perceptions about four main gorilla families. She depicts these creatures as having incredibly complex and intense family bonds formulated under the control of silverback leaders who she named Whinny (Group 4) Beethoven (Group 5), Rafiki (Group 8) and Nunkie's Group, who she does not give a number to for some reason.
Each gorilla is his or her own character within a story-frame of love, passion, lust, family bonds, incest, illness, infanticide and many hours spent grooming and playing. The average group consists of a single silverback, his harem of about three females, whose rank depends on order of capture by her mate for life, and their various offspring. When a male grows old enough he will go off from the group to secure his own females, usually by herding them away from their original groups. Violent fights will break out among the silverbacks in the acquiring of females. If she already has a child by another mate after having been newly obtained, the silverback will likely kill her offspring in order to dominate her and reproduce with her as quickly as possible himself.
Despite that it cannot be said that they are "nice" these shy creatures will also willingly die by the multitude to protect a single one of their own, which is why capturing mountain gorillas for exhibition in zoos is so dangerous. The capturing of a single gorilla can involve corruption among various lines of both African and European officials. "Without any abashment whatsoever, the Conservator admitted to having asked the leading poacher of the park, Munyarukiko, to organize a group of poachers to make the capture. What money passed through whose hands at this point I do not now know, nor did I then care. The men had climbed Mt. Karisimbi and selected a random group containing an infant. Later I learned that ten members of the gorilla group were killed in the capture." And all of this was for the Cologne zoo.
Fossey's novel does not run in an entirely linear fashion, but flows back and forth in time, though in a manner that functions well. The only criticism is not of the writing itself in a direct right, but of her portrayal of men she so often calls, "the Africans." She also refers to them as "the porters." Men who were essential to her maintaining her camp and who worked side by side with her for years to cut down trap after trap set by poachers as part of active conservation. She does not portray them badly nor does she portray them highly. Their name for her was Nyiramachabelli, which means: the women who lives on the mountain alone without a man.
She seems a very hard driven person and perhaps is a little condescending to those who do not have her education nor innate love for gorillas. She also never goes into detail about the mysterious poachers who were natives of the land and knew the mountains at least as well and likely better than she. Little is known of the Africans and their culture outside of their very direct effects on the gorillas as well as a dry, scientific overview of the country of Rwanda at large.
Research students were also hard placed to meet the competition that was a daily part of her world. Fossey came to realize she would need to train researchers to both aid in current work and carry it on for prosperity. Very, very few people are made to be able to transfer academic excellence into sustainable field work. One student collapsed at her feet after their first hike together. Another accidentally burnt down her own cabin from trying to dry clothes. A high ranked visiting botanist also burnt down his own cabin, leaving Fossey and the Africans with severe smoke inhalation from putting out the flames.
It came to Fossey's realization that what was a wilderness heaven for her, would be crying spells for people who think they really want to study primates in the wild because they achieved good grades and have been camping a few times. The question of salary also comes up when it comes to researchers as Fossey herself was never once salaried for her work in the mountains.
It is incredible what Fossey's passion, analysis and love for one specie meant for the world. "More than a decade later as I now sit writing these words at camp, the same stretch of alpine meadow is visible from my desk window. The sense of exhilaration I felt when viewing the heartland of the Virungas for the first time from those distant heights is as vivid now as though it had occurred only a short time ago. I have made my home among the mountain gorillas."
By Sarah Bahl