The juxtaposition of dates has historically created interesting understandings and examinations, and reflections. Not that my birth date has caused a rewriting of the history books, but the death of gorilla primatologist Dian Fossey murder has. The 24-hours bridging my birth and her death dates, mine 25 December, and her’s 26 December, each year causes me pause. Gorillas, conservation, the Virungas and extinction all drift in and out of focus.
Dian arrived in Africa in 1963 “The final two sites for her visit were Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania — the archaeological site of Louis and Mary Leakey — and Mt. Mikeno in Congo, where in 1959 American zoologist George Schaller had carried out a pioneering study of the mountain gorilla. Both of these visits proved to be of particular significance. Schaller was the first person to conduct a reliable field study of the mountain gorillas, and his efforts paved the way for the research that would become Dian Fossey’s life work.”
On 26 December 1985, a few weeks before her 54th birthday, she was violently murdered. Her body was found in her Karisoke cabin. She had been hit twice on the head and face with a machete. There was evidence of forced entry but no signs that robbery had been the motive. Dian Fossey’s murder remains a mystery to this day. She was laid to rest in the graveyard behind her cabin at Karisoke™, among her gorilla friends and next to her beloved mountain gorilla Digit.
Perhaps each December I reflect on Dian more than any other because I began photographing mountain gorillas and living at Karisoke only a couple years after Dian’s death. When I first arrived her cabin stood silent and cold, nothing altered from the day she was found dead. I remember walking in the house and seeing the the dozens of nose-print ID photos still tacked to the wall, pots and pans in the kitchen sink, and of course the blood stained matts in her bedroom where her brutal murder had taken place. There was a strange forgotten crime scene feeling, as if something tragic had occurred but no one had noticed. I spent sometime in there, mostly staring slowly and deliberately at the little gorilla photos on the wall. That image of the faces on the wall is still the image I see in my mind each December during the twenty-four hours that inevitably finds me. I walked out that day, and despite walking past the cabin dozens of times over the next couple years, never again went in.
Grave marker of Dian Fossey’s beloved mountain gorilla “Digit”. Dian wrote in a April 1981 National Geographic article, four years after Digit’s murder, “For me, this killing was probably the saddest event in all my years of sharing the daily lives of mountain gorillas, now diminished to only about 220 individuals—a reduction by half in just 20 years. Digit was a favorite among the habituated gorillas I was studying: In fact, I was unashamed to call him “my beloved Digit.”
I saw Dian speak a few years earlier, while in the United States, I really don’t recall it much, the memory of those faces on the wall and Digit’s wooden grave marker stain my memory. Dian is a complex enigma. On one hand I think she was the kind of dedicated crazy that was critical or we would have mountain gorillas today. On the other hand, if she had lived, I don’t think we would have mountain gorillas today — her death focused more attention that any other great ape has ever received. And frankly, her selfishness and sense of ownership would have gotten in the way of the critical conservation that needed to evolve.
This year on 25 December there is a rare full moon for this date, I watched it rise and dance shyly through a veil of cold damp clouds, wishing I were in Karisoke.
May you always rest in peace Nyiramachabelli — “the woman that lives alone on the mountain”
Notes & Sources
2015-2016 Global research and reporting on great apes made possible in part through the generous financial support of the Philadelphia Zoo