American zoologist Dian Fossey made it her life’s work to study the gorillas of Rwanda’s mountains; while there, she became a strong anti-poaching advocate. While she worked tirelessly to not only understand and study the gorillas, she dedicated her efforts to prevent poaching, which had reduced the dwindling gorilla population to less than 250 specimens. Dian Fossey, an American naturalist, was killed in Rwanda on December 26, 1985. The identity of the murderer is still a mystery; all that is known is that she was killed by a machete. She is interred at Karisoki, in the graveyard that sits behind the cabin where she lost her life. In the wake of this murder (and even leading up to it), critics of the devoted researcher and advocate claim that she should have stuck to “ pure” research instead of becoming active in the fight against poaching; this would have led to her still being alive. However, Fossey’s efforts to guard the mountain gorillas of Rwanda’s Parc des Volcans were an important and vital part of this kind of conservation, making it impossible for her to stop her efforts.
Fossey’s philosophy regarding the relationship to man and nature plays very much into her ideas of how to behave in the world of the gorillas: ” Any observer is an intruder in the domain of a wild animal and must remember that the rights of that animal supersede human interests. An observer must also keep in mind that an animal’s memories of one day’s contact might well be reflected in the following day’s behavior” (Fossey 14). Fossey’s relationship with the world of the gorilla was one of tremendous respect and passiveness; she felt as though mankind needed to respect the laws of nature and the space and desires of the gorillas in order to behave ethically and morally. In this way, her research emphasized becoming extremely respectful of the welfare of the gorillas – this extended, in the case of Fossey, to protecting them from other humans who might not respect the animal’s rights (namely poachers). Learning as much about the gorillas, while also advocating for their safety and release, was the goal to have for Fossey; despite criticisms that she should have stayed impartial and merely observed the environment, Fossey felt it a moral imperative to help the gorillas.
Fossey’s philosophy was a combination of scientific curiosity and moral idealism, as she could not allow her impartiality to lead to a net negative outcome for her subjects: “ There are times when one cannot accept facts for fear of shattering one’s being. As I listened to Ian’s news, all of Digit’s life, since my first meeting with him as a playful little ball of black fluff ten years earlier, passed through my mind. From that moment on, I came to live within an insulated part of myself” (Fossey, 1983). These tales of horrific poaching and the rampant destruction of the gorilla population in Rwanda led Fossey to ‘ insulate’ herself from the realities of poaching, for fear that it would shatter her idealism. Instead, she decided to focus on fighting poaching in the country, resisting tourism and fighting to preserve the gorilla’s habitat.
Fossey was tremendously selfless when it came to her research, requesting little money for herself and placing the emphasis outside financial gain and into the pursuit of scientific knowledge and conservation: “ I had never been salaried and felt that the research should be its own reward” (Fossey 160). Founding the Karisoke Research Centre, she focused on learning more about the gorillas of the Karisoke area; they had known humans only as poachers, and so it took quite a bit more time for them to get acclimated to her than in her previous research on the Congo end of the Virungas. To that end, the effect of poaching on the gorilla population was already apparent, and so Fossey felt it necessary to change those conditions in order to protect the gorillas and restore a more natural way of living for them. In this way, Fossey’s activism does not corrupt her research; in fact, she attempted to advocate for her subjects in general to restore a more proper habitat for them, which would create greater opportunities for objective study.
One of the biggest criticisms levied against Fossey is the need to maintain impartiality within her research; critics believed that she had no business becoming politically active in resisting the poaching trade of gorillas. In essence, Fossey’s research was tarnished by her own preferences and biases, and she herself changed the environment by her existence and activism. However, Fossey’s work as a conservationist and activist went hand in hand with her scientific study, as her idealism prevented her from being wholly uninvolved with the controversy surrounding poaching: “ I allowed myself to hope that someday poaching would be a thing of the past and that animals of the park might be able to put their trust in all humans” (Fossey 132). This was Fossey’s eventual mission statement; not only did she want to learn more about gorillas, she wanted to hope that there was the possibility for productive and peaceful coexistence between gorillas and humans. The poaching practice got in the way of that, and so she worked to end it.
Fossey took a great deal of pleasure in undoing the harm that the poachers were doing to the wildlife in Rwanda: “ Encountering a trapline and being able to cut the traps down before they have snared a victim is always rewarding” (Fossey 28). With that in mind, it can be claimed that Fossey’s work to fight poaching had its roots in a personal desire of hers to see the end of poaching; she was hardly impartial to the plight of the gorillas, and made it personal for her. To that end, it is possible to see that critics may believe this gets in the way of her ‘ pure research.’ However, this was never Fossey’s real concern; it seems as though she was an activist and conservationist first and researcher second. While she did get involved in a dangerous business, it was her prerogative to get involved, and she knew the risks of this kind of activity going in.
Granted, Fossey’s behavior did not lessen the chances of encountering this kind of trouble – she was noted for being tyrannical and strange, being extremely militant about the work she did against poachers. Fossey was clearly personally involved in this fight, and had special hate for the very concept of human invasion of wildlife and habitats, particularly as agents of tourism. According to Fossey, active conservation is far more preferable to theoretical conservation: “ Educating the local populace to respect gorillas and working to attract tourism do not help the 242 remaining gorillas of the Virungas survive for future generations of tourists to enjoy. Theoretical conservation has good long-term goals that needlessly ignore desperate immediate needs” (Fossey 58). As opposed to the generalized protection of gorillas as attractions for tourists, Fossey believes they should be left alone and handled only by dedicated individuals (such as her), who understand and can interfere much less with their environment. These attitudes most assuredly attracted the ire of poachers, thus leading to her mysterious death by machete in her hut in 1985.
In conclusion, Diane Fossey was justified in combining her research efforts with her work as an anti-poaching advocate. Because the subjects of her research were being dramatically threatened by poaching, she took it upon herself to act on a moral imperative to protect these animals. While she did take a bit of personal pleasure in this work, it does not deter her from conducting her research. Though critics claim she should have performed ‘ pure research,’ this seems to have been merely an attempt to consider her life above her ideals, as well as resentment over her emphasis on anti-poaching activism as a strategy to protect wildlife to the exclusion of all else. While Fossey can be said to have been on a crusade, it is difficult to argue that she did the right thing for any other reason than consideration of her own life. Despite Fossey’s often extreme viewpoints on human-gorilla interaction and the extent of conservation, her efforts were still substantive and helpful, and as a result were justified.
Fossey, Dian. Gorillas in the Mist. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983.