Dian Fossey

Musanze is a district in the northern half of Rwanda, south of the four national parks, but not so far south as to escape their influence. There is a tourism school here, to help Rwandans learn how to help tourists learn about Rwanda and to ease their travel.

Jacob, our guide, was headed downtown and asked – since I appeared to be at loose ends – if I would like to come along, so I did. It seemed to be a good opportunity to see the Rwandan town and have Jacob handy to ask questions at the same time. He was on a mission on behalf of one of our group to check out the bus schedules.

We started by stopping into a tour agency office where he knew people. There were two women sitting at their desks, who both looked up and smiled when they saw Jacob, and came forward to greet him. Jacob, with his wry sense of humor, introduced me as his new wife, implying more than one. They looked at me with quizzical eyes. Men in Rwanda are, in fact, allowed to have more than one wife, but I was laughing, so they enjoyed the joke, too.

At a tour office in Musanze, two very nice agents ready to help people visit their country, Rwanda.

They were friendly and happy people, i.e. typically African, and we had a very nice time visiting for the ten or fifteen minutes we were there, and then we moved on to the bus station. Jacob was able to read the schedule board to find what he needed, and then we began walking back toward the hotel.

I asked Jacob about all of the construction that was going on. Buildings were going up everywhere, and I didn’t see any evidence that there would be demand for apartments, even in Rwanda, which has a reasonable economy growing. He said that people with money liked to invest in apartments or hotels – they believed that Rwanda would grow. The corner of my mind where accounting thoughts still lurk was dubious about a reasonable pay-back period, but then again, my estimate of what it cost to build these places was probably over-stated. Working people in hotels, construction, or domestic occupations are paid very little, and so the actual construction cost may be very low. Most of the buildings are made from concrete and rebar skeletons built on a concrete pad or dug foundation, then finished. In a hotel, one can see where the concrete pillars and beams are underneath the finished walls and trim.

The key label. (I was testing something on the camera.)

We were staying in the Best View Hotel, which was on a side street in Musanze, and a very pleasant hotel for these last two days of our tour. As we walked along the street, we met Lynda and Patrina, who were on the way to the Dian Fossey Museum, and so I parted with Jacob, and joined Lynda and Patrina. I was very interested in visiting the museum.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International actually owns the building that houses the museum. The fund began in 1977 as The Digit Fund, organized by Dian Fossey to provide financial support to protect mountain gorillas, but as the mission of the organization expanded into conservation and fundraising, the name was changed. Today, you can find them online simply as “gorillafund.org.”

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International houses a museum, administrative offices and training rooms.

The museum is on the main floor. It houses educational displays, such as a comparison of a gorilla skeleton with a human skeleton. Gorillas are much bigger overall than humans, but specifically, their hands are much larger than ours as a proportion of our overall body. Gorillas’ canine teeth are larger and more prominent than ours. They use their teeth in defending their group from outside threats, and males use them to establish dominance within the group. Humans have a larger brain, which is housed in a larger brain case than gorillas have. Their heads and necks are very large and muscular, but their brain is measurably smaller than humans’ brains. And lastly, gorillas’ spines are bow-shaped and their arms are longer than their legs. These features enable them to climb trees and move between tree tops more easily than humans could. Humans have S-shaped spines, which enable them to walk upright more easily.

There was a chart that showed the approximate timelines in the relationships among orangutans, chimpanzees, baboons, gorillas, and humans. Orangutans were the first to diverge from our common ancestor, at almost 13 million years ago. Gorillas were next at 10 million years, followed by chimpanzees at 5 million years. Bonobos developed about 2 million years ago from an ancestor in common with chimpanzees. And then came humans.

Here we are, side by side. Gorillas diverged from chimpanzees (and bonobos) and humans about 10 million years ago. Chimpanzees diverged from humans about 5 million years ago.

Other displays discussed ways that our cell phones and other small electronics, including some advanced medical electronics, endanger gorillas. Coltan, the colloquial name for columbite-tantalum, is mined in the middle of gorilla habitat. In 2006, the main sources (80%) of coltan were Australia, Brazil, and Canada. As of 2018, coltan’s main producers are Rwanda, DRC (Congo,) Nigeria, Brazil, and China. Australia and Canada remain important producers, and Mozambique has some production.

In Africa, coltan is found mainly in the forests of the eastern DRC. It is mined by hand in a manner similar to panning for gold. There are three problems associated with this mining activity. First was the existence of “slave conditions” and child labor in the mining process itself. This caused Apple, in 2016, to suspend buying hand-mined coltan from the DRC. Second is the ongoing destruction of habitat by the mining activity that causes displacement of gorilla groups, including lowland gorillas, Grauer’s gorillas, and mountain gorillas. Third, is hunting of the wildlife – chimpanzees, gorillas, and elephants – for food. The mining locations are remote, so miners hunt animals near their location, which means wildlife. This is a major contributor to the decline of the Grauer’s gorillas in the last few years.

Mountain gorillas, on the other hand, have increased their population, due to cooperative conservation efforts by Rwanda, Uganda, DRC and the Dian Fossey Fund, whose focus is on the mountain gorillas. Between 1989 and 2003, the mountain gorilla population grew by 17%. By 2010, they added another 26%. It is admirable progress, but the population is still fragile. The 26% by 2010 brought the census to about 480, so a new disease could still wipe them out, but there is reason to be hopeful for more progress.

Because of Dian Fossey’s studies, conservationists know much more than before about the biology and living habits of mountain gorillas, which were also subjects of the displays.

Mountain gorillas become sexually mature around eight years old, but most don’t actually produce infants until they are ten years old. From then, they have an infant every four years. Gestation is 255 days, whereas humans gestate for 275 days. The survival rate is about 70%. Mortality is mainly because of accidents (including poaching and snares,) illness (they can catch some human diseases,) and extreme weather, which may cause death by hypothermia. Occasionally, the infants are killed by external males or the new dominant silver back when a female with an infant joins a new group.

Social groups are flexible. Group size is anywhere from two to sixty-some individuals. Males may be solitary their entire lives, may lead a group as the sole dominant silverback (DSB,) or may co-reside with other adult males. Mountain groups usually have a dominant silverback, females, and their offspring. Most groups have only one silverback, but groups with up to seven have been observed.

Dian Fossey always liked animals, but didn’t envision a career like this until she visited Africa in 1963. During this trip through Kenya, Tanzania, Congo, and Zimbabwe (which had different names then,) she visited Dr. Louis Leakey’s archaeological site and learned about Jane Goodall’s study of chimpanzees in Tanzania, which had begun in 1960. Dr. Leakey shared with Fossey his belief in the importance of long-term field studies of the great apes.

In 1966, Fossey traveled back to Congo to study gorillas, stopping on her way to visit Jane Goodall and observe her research methods. By 1967, she had founded the Karisoke Research Center in the Virunga Mountains to protect and study mountain gorillas. It has since grown into a conservation effort for other wildlife and to develop programs for people who live near the gorillas.

Fossey became famous after photographs by Robert Campbell were published in the National Geographic’s January, 1970, issue. These photos forever changed the image of gorillas from “dangerous beasts” to gentle primates, and focused attention on their plight – losing habitat and diminishing numbers.

This issue of the National Geographic was a major turning point for mountain gorillas and Dian Fossey.

Fossey, who did not have technical credentials in her field, spent 1970 – 1974 earning a PhD from Darwin College, Cambridge, and commuting to and from Africa while completing her academic work. Armed with credentials, she was able to secure funding to protect the gorillas. She used her funds to provide uniforms, boots, wages, and food for the park wardens, who fought poachers and encroachment by herds of cattle, grazing on park lands.

Digit, so-named because he had a damaged finger, and Fossey met in 1967, and became good friends. He was killed in 1977 by poachers. In his memory, she founded The Digit Fund in 1977, which later became the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, as a not-for-profit to collect donations to support conservation and protection efforts.

In 1980, Fossey moved to Ithaca, NY, as a visiting associate professor for Cornell University. During her stay at Cornell, she wrote “Gorillas in the Mist,” about her years in the rainforest with mountain gorillas, and the need for focused conservation efforts. It was published in 1983.

Fossey returned to Rwanda. Sadly, she was murdered in December, 1985, presumably by poachers, but the case was never resolved. She is buried behind her cabin at Karisoke, next to her beloved Digit.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International has offices in Musanze, Rwanda, and Atlanta, Georgia. In 2018, The Ellen Fund, a not-for-profit organized by Ellen Degeneres, provided a lead gift to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund to help build a 4500 square meter purpose-built, permanent headquarters in Kinigi, Musanze District, Rwanda. The center will provide a research library, training facilities, on-site residential quarters for researchers and others, and an area for visitor educational displays. Plans and architectural drawings are on display at the current headquarters in Musanze.

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