Sunday, December 26, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Poaching of Dian Fossey


The received wisdom concerning the death of Dian Fossey is that she was killed by poachers; certainly, her fatal blow was struck with a panga, a poacher's weapon if ever there was one. Only here's where the story gets twisty; the panga that split her skull open was her own, confiscated from a poacher years earlier and kept as a trophy. Ironically, she was known to carry it with her as protection.

While the brutality of her death betokened the work of those soulless killers who hunt not for survival but for greed, she was found indoors; poachers would have killed her outside, likely in the same way they'd have killed one of her gorillas, given half a chance. Yet, despite a massive head wound, there was little blood on the premises, which could mean she'd been killed outdoors and bled off via natural processes during transport; something else poachers wouldn't be likely to do - they'd have just left her in the jungle. And even though her cabin was ransacked nothing had been stolen, not even the thousands of dollars in cash she kept.

Yet another faction believes it was proponents of eco-tourism - who saw Fossey's opposition to their goldmine and her increasingly persuasive reputation in the halls of power around the world as serious impediments to their future wealth - who killed her and then made a rather feeble attempt at framing poachers for it; this is the view of the naturalist Farley Mowat, who wrote the book Virunga: The Passion of Dian Fossey about her life and death.

Or maybe there was some collusion between the two; the point is, we may never know.

All we know for sure is that on this day in 1985 the gorillas of Rwanda lost their finest advocate, a passionate woman of principle whose zeal for habitat preservation was just beginning to win converts from those who had previously supported a conservation model based on game preserves and zoos, which she considered barbaric.

Many of Fossey's students at the Karisoke Research Center - which she founded in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda in 1967 - favoured eco-tourism for its lucrativity, seemingly unconcerned by the deaths of those gorillas who perished from diseases brought in by said tourists.* Fossey's desire, on the other hand, was to preserve wild places where wild animals could remain wild, a noble cause if ever there was one; certainly, the gorillas at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, for all that I love to look at them there, look amongst themselves like they'd rather be anywhere else.

Fossey was famously portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist (based on Fossey's own book, published in 1983.) Weaver's portrayal, naturally, is a heroic one; it amply depicts what Fossey's detractors have called her 'obsessiveness', reframing it as 'fervour'. Since in Fossey's mind no one else was looking out for the gorillas, she decided to do it herself; 'my gorillas' she called them, and she wasn't wrong. If anyone had the right to make such a claim it was the woman who gave both her life and her death to save them.

[* What kind of business plan is that? What could be more exploitative than taking the maximum profit on a minimal investment, before the venture itself is guilty of killing off the chief asset? Not only dangerously short-sighted but a recipe for certain extinction. Gawd, the greed on some people... ~ MSM]

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