Dian Fossey's gorillas

Here I am on the Congolese border. Congo is waiting for me in this cold and humid dawn.

Me and the others are off to the Virunga National Park, all boxed in the car, two hours of road ahead of us.

Tension sets in as soon as we’re divided into groups. Each one will look for a different family of gorillas. The rangers give us some useful advice and then we’re off, backpacks on, cameras ready. The long trek begins.

After crossing a huge valley on foot among cultivated land and exotic plants, we enter the jungle. The humidity is unbelievable. We start to climb uphill surrounded by plants and lianas, our feet sinking into the ground.

The rangers walk ahead of us, opening the way with a machete. Hours go by and we’re forced to leave unnecessary things in a specified place.

We’re getting close to our destination. We proceed in silence in a single line while the rangers make weird cries: it’s the gorillas’ call.

Suddenly we’re startled by a noise coming from behind the bushes. The first specimen appears and we’re faced with a beautiful gorilla female carrying her baby on her belly.

I’m shocked, she’s standing just two meters away from me. I’d love to get closer and touch her but I can’t. I just keep watching, entranced. What a marvelous sight!

Always suddenly, two baby gorillas appear up in the trees, jumping from one tree branch to the other. They’re curious... they observe, they watch us and are not afraid to come closer.

For the first 20 minutes I forget about my camera, but I don’t want to lose even a second of all the things surrounding me. I feel more curious than the gorillas, studying them and observing them is a pleasure.

I start taking pics. The light conditions are awful, shadows and light are very strong but I keep going. I try to make up for lost time, taking loads and loads of pics, I get closer but the ranger pulls me back.

And here comes the guest of honor, the head of the family, a huge and imposing creature. Our group is shocked at the sight of those 250kg of fur! His movements are law for the pack. The females follow him and worship him. One of his looks is enough to make them understand, and it’s the same for us.

He moves smoothly, from the height of his imposing figure, slowly observing us, the females who are eating and the cubs who are playing around us. Now that he trusts us and thinks everything is ok, he turns his back on us and begins to eat.

Still more photos and videos. The gorillas keep moving so we follow them, penetrating deeper into the jungle; the plants are stinging us, wrapping around our feet so that we risk falling to the ground with every step.

Unfortunately our time has run out, it flew by. After taking the last couple of pics, we say goodbye to these wonders of nature that were saved by Dian Fossey’s sacrifice.

Dian Fossey is the renowned Californian ethologist who left for central Africa in 1967 and dedicated 22 years of her life to studying mountain gorillas, protecting them from poachers.

The day she was murdered she wrote this in her diary: "When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate on the preservation of the future".

Even on December 26th 1985, the day of her murder, Dian was thinking about protecting lives. Her gorillas, threatened by poachers, by local farmers, neglected by insensitive government, forgotten by the scientific world. Only she, a stubborn and determined researcher, fought for their survival.

20 years before that, she convinced Dr Louis Leakey that she was going to become for the gorillas what Jane Goodall had been for chimpanzees.

On his part, Leakey convinced the National Geographic to finance a report made by the young Californian scientist on the Virunga Mountains, inside the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, bordering Congo and Uganda.

Dian Fossey set up her small research center right on the Rwandan slope between the Karisimbi and Bisoke mountains, calling it Karisoke as homage to the volcanoes. Overcoming skepticism, resistance, and even local superstitions, she was able to get close to mountain gorillas and get them to accept her, almost becoming "one of them".

Fighting against everyone and everything, Dian Fossey strenuously defended this endangered species, putting its safety before her own. Until someone armed with panga (a machete used by poachers), murdered her inside her cabin at the Karisoke Research Centre. There are many theories on the murder but nobody was found guilty, at least not officially.

A few months beforehand, Dian (whom some slanderer in the meantime had fun depicting as arrogant, a little neurotic, and with a strong cult of personality) had signed a multi-million contract with Warner Brothers for a movie based on her life.

The movie, based on Fosseys’ novel “Gorillas In The Mist”, featured a beautiful Sigourney Weaver interpreting the role of the ethologist.

Thanks to her sacrifice, mountain gorillas are now growing in number. Some of these troops of gorillas can also be approached by men, always with caution though.

You’ll need money and patience to get all the necessary permits to explore the park. You’ll also need a little bit of courage, physical strength, and much determination.

The Volcanoes National Park headquarters are located 2000 m above sea level and the tracking can easily reach (and sometimes surpass) a height of 3000 m in case you want to observe the largest group of gorillas (also the most difficult to reach): the Susa.

Dian Fossey rests in peace right where the Karisoke Rersearch Centre stood, and where her gorillas still live.


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