Human beings must decide now whether or not the mountain gorilla will become one of them, a species discovered and extinct within the same century, The gorillas’ destiny lies in the hands of those who share their communal inheritance, the land of Africa, the home of the mountain gorilla. –Dian Fossey
Dian Fossey’s landmark work with mountain gorillas in Rwanda from 1966 until her death in 1985 has often been credited with saving the species. She wrote of her experiences in “Gorillas in the Mist,” which was later made into a movie. Her stories of these gentle giants gave us a glimpse into the world of one of humankind’s closest relatives, making the decimation of their numbers by poachers all the more wrenching. Fossey was not the only researcher to write about the gorillas – George Schaller’s pioneering studies with them and Bill Webber and Amy Vedder’s work to create an ecotourism program with the intent of saving the species have also been important works. But Fossey’s intensely personal relationship with the mountain gorillas transcended pure science and conservation measures. Her passion stirred millions, giving credence to the neuroscience that tells us that engaging both the mind and the heart is what makes a real difference in persuasive communication.
When I learned some years ago that it was possible to spend time with mountain gorillas in their own habitat, I was ready. I had seen the movie, read the book, and wanted to see what Fossey saw. As the years slipped by, and age crept up on my joints, I had given up hope of ever making the journey up the mountains where the gorillas lived. I had heard it was a physically demanding hike through rough, heavily forested terrain and I was sure that I had missed my window of opportunity.
So when I found myself in Rwanda for a work project recently, and a free day gave us the chance to visit Volcanoes National Park, I paid an outrageous amount for a permit that would allow me to join a guided group of eight people as we caught up to trackers and spent an hour with a mountain gorilla family going about their normal daily routine in the forest. There are now ten habituated family groups that roam the Virunga volcanoes. Each family can be visited by only one group of eight humans each day, and only for an hour. The time I was able to spend with the gorillas was nothing short of magical. It was definitely physically demanding, but we managed to be in a group that visited a family that was close to the park boundary and I was able to keep up with the younger, more fit people in the group, as our guide moved slowly uphill with plenty of rest breaks.
Dian Fossey was opposed to the idea of creating opportunities for tourists to view gorillas. Part of her fear stemmed from the concern that gorillas might not be able to differentiate between harmless tourists and deadly poachers and so would be more vulnerable to poaching. The opposite has occurred. There is now a huge financial incentive for the Rwandan government to protect the mountain gorillas. Trackers stay with the gorillas, so that time spent finding them is minimized. Because there is greater attention paid to them, poaching is becoming more difficult, and their numbers have actually increased in recent years. Last year’s census by the World Wildlife Fund recorded 786 individuals, up 26% in the last decade.
Fossey’s book and the movie it inspired brought attention to the mountain gorilla in a way that little else could. I am grateful for the work that she did, especially after meeting the gorillas face to face on their turf. They are incredible creatures, with old souls reflected in their depths of their eyes. I want to know more about them, see more of them, and do more for them. Fossey piqued my interest, but being there solidified my commitment. What a difference a book can make, opening a door to new worlds and new ways of thinking about things you thought you already knew. Keep reading, but remember, the last page is just the start . . .
– Lisa Brochu
Author with Tim Merriman of The Leopard Tree