The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey

To the millions who learned of her either through her book, Gorillas in the Mist, or the movie of the same name, Dian Fossey became the very model of secular sainthood: the Mother Teresa of the mountain ape. Even Fossey’s murder in December 1985 at her remote camp in the rain forest of the Virungas in Rwanda seemed to affirm her martyrdom. Blamed on an American researcher by local officials — he was convicted in absentia by a court in Rwanda — and on vengeful African poachers by almost everybody else, Fossey’s death appears likely to remain an enigma.

But mystery or not, readers may be interested to learn from Harold T. P. Hayes’ remarkable new book — The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey — that Fossey’s death came as little surprise to people who knew her well. While Hayes regards it as ”an indisputable fact that Dian Fossey had died for her gorillas,” he also convincingly demonstrates that the tragedy was in some sense self-inflicted. Over the years, Fossey’s often bizarre and tyrannical behavior had earned her a host of enemies: ”Poachers, cattle herders, park of cials, Western conservationists, members of her staff, a couple dozen researchers — the parade of possible suspects extended far back into the past. In pursuit of her singular goal, the protection of the endangered mountain gorilla, Fossey had shot at her enemies, kidnapped their children, whipped them about the genitals, smeared them with ape dung, killed their cattle, burned their property, discredited their work, and sent them to jail.”

What’s more, by the time Fossey died, she had driven herself to the edge of an alcohol-fueled psychosis, spending virtually all her time alone in her cabin in the rain forest, muttering darkly against mankind in general and Africans in particular. For all of her extraordinary dedication and courage, there is much to Fossey’s story that is not entirely pretty.

In the hands of the late Esquire editor — Hayes died in April 1989 before he was able to complete the book’s concluding chapters — it is, however, a fascinating drama. Even more important, Hayes’ book also may serve as a warning to people from developed nations about some of the perils of wildlife preservation. Had Fossey not been lucky enough to publicize the plight of the apes by getting her book on the best-seller lists, her efforts on behalf of these magnificent creatures could have done more harm than good. Hardly anybody in Rwanda, for example, doubts that some apes were slaughtered less for pro t than as acts of revenge against the scientist herself. Her misanthropy and racism did not go unnoticed among the impoverished inhabitants of the little nation.

Not that Dian Fossey didn’t have her sympathetic side, as Hayes’ balanced treatment makes clear. Six foot one by the age of 14, and made to feel homely by her beauty-conscious mother, Fossey’s childhood was — at least by her own somewhat suspect accounts — a miserable one. How, at the age of 34, she managed to persuade the great scientist Louis Leakey that a scienti cally untrained occupational therapist from Louisville, Ky., was the ape researcher he’d been seeking is a remarkable story in itself. As is the near-miracle of her survival — reporting as she did to a remote area of what is now Zaïre in 1966 in the midst of a brutal civil war, innocent of the languages, history, and culture of the area, unfit physically, and entirely ignorant of wilderness survival skills. At first it was the apes that protected Fossey; only by staying close to the gentle but mighty creatures was her safety assured.

For all the diligence of Hayes’ research — he did more than 200 interviews — key aspects of Fossey’s life remain obscure. She was by turns secretive and deliberately misleading. She never consulted her sometime lover Bob Campbell, a National Geographic cameraman whose lms made her famous, about the two abortions she’d had in order to remain with her beloved apes. There is reason to suspect that she exaggerated or even fantasized events, particularly her 16-day detention at the hands of Congolese soldiers during a mercenary uprising in 1967. Was she gang raped for days, as she claimed? Or did she intimidate her captors with her rage so that they feared to touch her? Fossey told both stories at different times with equal conviction.

Though she struggled with penury almost to the end, Fossey became, in a sense, one of the last white colonialists — bitterly and violently resisting all forms of outside intrusion into what she had come to regard as her own personal Eden. She reacted to an international plan to bring tourist safaris to the Virungas ”as if someone had proposed a development of high-rise apartments in the heart of the wilderness.” Yet it is the success of that effort that has protected the mountain apes, by making them worth in nitely more to Rwandans than the value of their habitat as crop land. Today the apes prosper and increase in number — a fitting epitaph, as Hayes points out, for their troubled but undeniably heroic champion.

The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey