Dian Fossey initiated the longest-running Mountain Gorilla research in 1967, which lasted almost two decades and changed the world of zoology.
As the 30th anniversary of her untimely death approached, I visited my role model’s grave in Rwanda. I now carry a reminder – a totem – in my pocket: a carved wooden keychain from her Karisoke Research Center, high in the Virunga Mountains. But I don’t need to. Fossey’s legacy illuminates every step I take as a female wildlife biologist.
With ongoing unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda remains one of only two countries where the critically endangered Mountain Gorillas can be safely viewed, along with Uganda. Each year, approximately 17,000 people travel to Volcano National Park to see these striking quadrupeds. Upon visiting the area, fewer people extend the trip and make the half-day journey to the relics of the Karisoke grounds, visiting the final resting place of the iconic woman who studied these extraordinary animals.
Ten-plus years as a student and wildlife biologist have thickened my skin, as the field parallels that of Fossey’s day. The profession remains largely male-oriented; often times it feels like an uphill battle trying to win opportunities and be taken seriously. Because of this, Dian Fossey has been an exceptional role model for me: a woman whose struggles and triumphs I turn to whenever hardships surface on the job. With no formal training, she persuaded Louis Leakey to allow her to study the gorillas. He believed women stood decidedly more patient – a skill vital for such ongoing research projects, and a proficiency so brilliantly demonstrated by her chimpanzee-research colleague, Jane Goodall.
The big 3-0 arrived for me in 2012 and East Africa was my ultimate destination that year. The entire trip centered around visiting Fossey’s grave. I had a full month of holiday devoted to all the classics. But my final two days in Africa brought it all home: hikes to view the Mountain Gorillas and visit Fossey’s grave.
A rotund Ugandan man picked me up from my lodging at a Catholic monastery, delivering stories though a dense accent I could hardly understand, though I couldn’t help but smile at his animation and excitement. After 20 minutes, he dropped me off in Volcano National Park, where I filed in with the hundreds who came to view Mountain Gorillas. Groups divided based on physical demands. I felt fighting-fit after summiting Kilimanjaro and opted for a more strenuous walk: two hours weaving up endless switchbacks, until we made it to the stone-wall entrance of the park. Our shirts heavy with sweat, we scrambled over the fence, trading hilly potato fields for a wall of greenery. The gorillas lingered nearby. My pace quickened with the exhilaration Fossey must have felt decades ago.
Suddenly, the renowned primates appeared almost out of nowhere. A mother and infant Mountain Gorilla materialized before my eyes. One by one, the complete Bwenge family appeared, including the male silverback. The time had come to stop being a tourist, put the camera away and enjoy my fleeting time with these amazing creatures.
That evening, my Ugandan driver joined me for dinner. Indulging in well-deserved Primus beers, we chatted as I nursed my nettle wounds and recovered from the vigorous four-hour hike up to 3,000 meters. Barely able to lift my beverage, I thanked him for the day’s workout and conveyed my anticipation for Fossey’s grave the following morning. Intriguingly, he shared thoughts similar to those I had read in National Geographic: the Rwandan government was probably not blameless in Fossey’s murder. He further educated me about the numerous former poachers who converted to gorilla trackers and guides for the tourism industry.
The following morning, he came to collect only me. Hundreds of anxious gorilla viewers loitered at the visitor center, but today, how many of us would go pay homage to the woman who made it all possible? In about an hour’s time, my leader emerged. As I scanned behind me, the multitudes had disappeared and only a French lady remained, clutching a basket of hideous funeral-styled flowers. This was it: “the group.”
The path resembled yesterday’s, but today my locomotive huffing and puffing stayed far from my mind. Recalling the film Gorillas in the Mist, I envisioned Fossey’s initial walk to this camp. The jungle loomed as equally colossal now as then. How long did it take her to get back to civilization? Might these be her same tracks? Maybe these deliberations mimicked ones my French companion entertained, though we could not express them to each other.
Remnants of structures comprised camp boundaries: the kitchen, the volleyball court, Fossey’s original cabin. Spiraling through, we reached a dwarfed wooden fence filled with tiny grave markers and a large one. “Nyiramachabelli.” Translated: “the lone woman of the forest.” The Rwandan name she acknowledged and the name she took with her to the grave, inscribed on the headstone above her English one.
The plot beside Fossey belonged to none other than the infamous male gorilla, Digit. For the first time during the entire hike, the French lady and I connected. We stood side-by-side: two lone women who hiked to pay tribute to this remarkable woman. Tears filled our eyes and we each sank down on one knee in respect.
Silence dominated the return to the visitor center, but my thoughts churned boundlessly. I became more inspired than ever. Fossey’s energy surged through me. Perhaps one day my work with wildlife would be recalled as fondly as hers. Regardless, I felt recharged and prepared to work hard because in her own immortal words: “when you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.”
Lindsay Rohrbaugh is an avid traveler, rock-alpine climber, and mountaineer. After studying Environmental Science in Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky, she returned to the Washington, D.C. area as an urban Wildlife Biologist. Her inspiration for writing comes from her daily encounters in the field as well as all her climbs and travels. You can find more amazing adventures, adrenaline rushes and other tales (and tails) from the field at https://lindsayinthewild.wordpress.com/.