January 16th, 1932 – December 26th, 1985
WE SHOULD NEVER FORGET
Commentary by Captain Paul Watson
Twenty-nine year ago today Dian Fossey was murdered at her camp in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. She was 53.
Fossey was one of the foremost primatologists in the world while she was alive and along with Jane Goodall and Birutė Galdikas, the group of the three most prominent prominent researchers on primates (Fossey on gorillas; Goodall on chimpanzees; and Galdikas on orangutans) sent by Louis Leakey to study great apes in their natural environments.
On three occasions, Fossey wrote that she witnessed the aftermath of the capture of infant gorillas at the behest of the park conservators for zoos; since gorillas will fight to the death to protect their young, the kidnappings would often result in up to 10 adult gorillas’ deaths. Through the Digit Fund, Fossey financed patrols to destroy poachers’ traps in the Karisoke study area. In four months in 1979, the Fossey patrol consisting of four African staffers destroyed 987 poachers’ traps in the research area’s vicinity. The official Rwandan national park guards, consisting of 24 staffers, did not eradicate any poachers’ traps during the same period. In the eastern portion of the park, not patrolled by Fossey, poachers virtually eradicated all the park’s elephants for ivory and killed more than a dozen gorillas.
Fossey helped in the arrest of several poachers, some of whom served long prison sentences.
In 1978, Fossey attempted to prevent the export of two young gorillas, Coco and Pucker, from Rwanda to the zoo in Cologne, Germany. During the capture of the infants at the behest of the Cologne Zoo and Rwandan park conservator, 20 adult gorillas had been killed. The infant gorillas were given to Fossey by the park conservator of the Virunga Volcanoes for treatment of injuries suffered during their capture and captivity. With considerable effort, she restored them to some approximation of health. Over Fossey’s objections, the gorillas were shipped to Cologne, where they lived nine years in captivity, both dying in the same month. She viewed the holding of animals in “prison” (zoos) for the entertainment of people as unethical.
The killing of so many of her beloved Mountain Gorillas provoked Fossey to take bolder actions and to speak out loudly to those she knew were compromising with the poachers.
While she was alive Fossey was severely criticized by many for her opposition to poaching. The WWF and National Geographic both cut off her funding because she refused to back off from her outspoken and physical opposition to poaching.
According to Fossey’s own letters, the Rwandan national park system, the World Wildlife Fund, African Wildlife Foundation, Fauna Preservation Society, the Mountain Gorilla Project and some of her former students tried to wrest control of the Karisoke research center from her for the purpose of tourism, by portraying her as unstable. In her last two years, Fossey did not lose a single gorilla to poachers. Meanwhile the Mountain Gorilla Project, which was supposed to patrol the Mount Sabyinyo area, covered up gorilla deaths caused by poaching and diseases transmitted through tourists. Despite this the public contributions for gorilla conservation went to these organizations and not to Fossey, although the public often believed their money would go to Fossey and this belief was encouraged by many of these same groups, some of whom blatantly exploited her name. As others became rich from her work.
Fossey wrote that much of the money collected for Gorillas was instead put into tourism projects and as she put it “to pay the airfare of so-called conservationists who will never go on anti-poaching patrols in their life.” Fossey described the differing two philosophies as her own “active conservation” or the international conservation groups’ “theoretical conservation.”
This kind of corruption and disingenuous “conservation” has grown more and more prominent since her death as conservation has become a profitable business for many groups. In other words there are groups that do, and then, there are groups that do “mail-outs.”
Today poaching continues to eradicate large numbers in Africa and threatens many species with extinction.
The same method used to capture gorillas is now used in Taiji, Japan to capture dolphins with entire pods being wiped out to provide “specimens” for display in dolphinariums.
One of the theoretical conservationists Dian Fossey had in mind would be British writer Tunku Varadarajan who wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2002 that Fossey was a “colourful, controversial, and a racist alcoholic who regarded her gorillas as better than the African people who lived around them.”
My own thought is that perhaps she did think exactly that, and if she did, it is because the mountain gorillas are indeed better than the African people who live around them. In fact they are better than all of humanity who lay waste to nature, war on each other and wage hatred towards our fellow humans and all other species. As for being an alcoholic, considering the death and misery she witnessed, I can well understand her turning to the bottle for solace.
She was a great woman, an influential scientist and a courageous conservationist who sacrificed her life in the cause for which she fought so long and so valiantly for.
I have been fortunate to have met Jane Goodall many times and I consider Birute Galdikas a longtime personal friend. I have always regretted that when I was working with elephant conservation work in East Africa that I did not visit Dian in Rwanda. What I do know is that what she did was inspiring. My friend, the late Farley Mowat wrote the book Virunga about Dian Fossey and confided in me many things about her that the public did not know, things about her past that fired the passion in her heart to do what she did and ultimately made her a legend and a symbol of resistance to human corruption and greed.
A few hours before she was murdered she wrote the following words in her journal:
“When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.”