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Dian Fossey - a "witch" who saved mountain gorillas

On September 24, at 16.30, fifty years have passed since Dian Fossey set up a Karisoke research station high up in the Rwanda Mountains. The following years of work in solitude brought her both scientific successes and personal suffering. Directly in Karisoke, she was finally murdered to protect the gorillas. Only thanks to her commitment to the mountain gorillas we can still go.

"You leave all the food here, you leave here backpacks and anything you could lose. You can marry, " Francis whispers in the gray jacket of the National Park guard, and slowly mowing through the dense bamboo field. In a deep bow, we leave instead of the last meeting, and with a breath of breath we search through the surrounding bamboo thickets. Meanwhile, we see only impenetrable green meats.

We are going down almost four, when Francis's movements are completely calm. He stays back to us and cautiously signals that we move as quietly as possible. Here they must be! I turn my head slowly to the left, staring at the face of a gorilla chick about three meters away. He comfortably sits on his lap and stares in my eyes. Oh, God, how come they are so close! At the center of the park there was a seven-meter line marking the distance we should not change when observing the gorillas. If the female stepped up now, it's just two steps and we can get together.

Still in front of me, I turn my head back and now I register a black face that is on the ground about a meter from my right foot. There is another gorilla there and she looks at me curiously. Well, no, it would be enough to stretch my arm and reach my slightly knees on my knees!

Establishment of Karisoke

A visit to the gorillas is today one of Rwanda's major tourist attractions. Fifty years ago, however, it was far from certain that the mountain gorillas would survive on the slopes of several volcanoes in the Virunga Mountains.

"Thanks to Dian Fossey, we still have gorillas here.
She had a lot of enemies at her time, but today we see how she helped us. Rwanda is proud of the gorilla, and I personally like Dian Fossey very much, " says Odile, the park's guide, who we ride to the rubble of the Karisoke Research Center one day later after a visit to the gorillas.

Between the Karisimbi, Visoke and Mikeno volcanoes on the borders of Congo and Rwanda, the saddle area spreads, where the first attempts to protect mountain gorillas began almost a hundred years ago. Carl Akeley, an American taxidermist, first shot several of them for the American Museum of Natural History, but it was waving him for the rest of his life, advocating the establishment of a national park in their area. About the exceptional nature of the gorillas he managed to persuade Belgian King Albert I, who in 1925 declared the first national park in Africa - today he is known on the Congolese side as Virunga, on the Rwandan side as Volcanoes.

Carl Akeley returned to the slopes of Mikena in 1926 to investigate the gorillas more closely, but soon died of dysentery, and Kabara was buried in the alpine meadow. 35 years later, the famous American field biologist George Schaller came to the same place, spent a whole year with gorillas, watching hundreds of hours, and in his books disproved a series of traded nonsense, such as the violent nature of the gorillas.

In 1963, several years after Schaller, Dian Fossey was on the meadow. On her trip to Africa, this American nurse, without any experience of watching animals, had been saving for months, but after the first brief meeting she was so amazed that she had decided to return to Kabara again. It took place at the end of 1966, when the local gorillas began to study. But for half a year, Congolese soldiers drove her away. However, with the help of anthropologist Louise Leakey, she managed to persuade the authorities to take her on the Rwandan side of the mountain range, and in September 1967 Karisimbi and Visoke could be formed in the saddle between Karisimbi and Visoke, the name being the compound of the names of the volcanoes among which they lie.

More illnesses than poachers

While you will almost certainly be part of a larger group in the gorilla ride, the Karisoke ruins are almost alone with luck today. In addition to Odile's guide, we still have an obligatory armed escort. "That's because of the buffalo," laughs a guy with a machine gun who refuses to give up his name.

We climb the village of Bisate in close proximity to the park and, just like in other places, the fields are also farmed up to the wall that marks the boundaries of the park. The gorillas occasionally visit the fields. Dian Fossey is back in the woods and the park guards have to do it today.

"It's not so much that the locals are afraid or want to kill them. However, with the gorilla's high affinity with humans, gorillas from humans or livestock may be caught by some kind of disease, " Odile explains. With an estimated number of as many as 800 animals, an epidemic of contagious disease could mean a significant reduction in or even extinction for gorillas. "As for poachers, they are currently focusing mainly on antelope and buffalo," Odile continues. "The gorillas may be the victims of the traps that are being put on these animals."

We continue on a steep, tumultuous trail when a group of five gunmen, who have a machine gun in addition to machine guns, walks very hurriedly up the hill. He probably will not be on the buffalo. They head for the nearby border with Konung, where the guard of the park was killed the day before our visit by armed militias who are unable to push out of Virunga Congolese Park.


At the time of Dian Fossey's arrival among the gorillas there was a national park, but no one cared about the safety of the gorillas. The researcher thus gradually identified individual groups of gorillas, gained their trust and began to describe their habits, but the animals with which they built a relationship were killed by poachers or hunted for zoos.

"So Dian Fossey had to organize anti-whistle patrols, drive out cattle shepherds from the park, and get into sharp quarrels with park keepers who cough or try to use it for their own enrichment," says Odile. Fossey occasionally even used various masks and poachers to haunt her, making use of their belief in black magic. She wiped the animals, trampled the poached nets, attacked their camps.

Part of the local people therefore nicknamed her Nyiramachabelli, a witch. This inscription is on its tombstone in Karisoke. After several hours of climbing through densely sloping slopes, the landscape suddenly changes, and meadows spread out beneath trees covered with lichens, and a stream of creeps flows between them. There is a great damp everywhere, not even the remains of a research station and a small cemetery under the beautiful Hagiene crowns, but they can not change the fact that this place is still almost intact nature and wildlife.

Here, in the Fossey cabin, every night she wrote notes from a meeting with gorillas and gathered information for her research. Here she prepared the articles she had received around the world for the protection of gorillas, and she also felt here for the first time that she might have crossed the invisible border between man and the ape.

Peanuts and Digit

The gorillas, persecuted by poachers, flew from everyone, at the beginning of the research, it was practically impossible to approach them. But after ten months, the first moment of rapprochement came. "Peanuts, a cub from the 8th group, fed about five yards away from me when he suddenly stopped, turned and looked directly into my eyes. In his view, curiosity and friendship mingled. I was fascinated by his gaze, " Fossey describes her own experiences in the book" Gorilla in the Fog ". Peanuts was also the first gorilla to hit Fossey two years later.

The extraordinary moments with the gorillas, however, were redeemed by the constant concerns about running the station and their survival. Fossey's most beloved gorilla, the male Digita, killed the poachers last day in 1977. He bravely fought with power, seized six poachers, and captured five deadly spears of spears, only to have his family in which his companion Simba was still unborn, escape above the hilltop of Visoke mountain.

Eight years later, Dian Fossey was also murdered in Karisoke. "Someone broke in at her cottage at night and cut her head with a machete. Her colleagues found her only in the morning. The cottage had nothing to lose, not a robbery, but a targeted murder. " We stand next to Fossey's tomb and Odile's guide speaks very quietly and with emotion. Looking at Digit's tomb just next to Fossey's tombstone, the man is struck by how much pain, fear and disappointment the gorillas and their protectors have to experience, and how generous the gorillas are, despite all this, are still willing to trust .

High survival cost

Dian Fossey has taught several gorilla groups to endure their presence, and this has become the basis for their survival. She herself did not have the love of herself, but without economic benefit to the local population, it would probably not be possible to keep a forest without which mountain gorillas can not exist.

Rwanda has the highest population density in Africa - comparable to the Netherlands or Israel - and the densely populated districts are in close proximity to the Volcanoes National Park. Despite this, the mountain gorillas are the only one of the apes whose numbers are increasing. They can earn on themselves and bring incomes to people around the park.

Thanks to the work with which Dian Fossey began, today tourists will get to ten habituated, the people who are used to the gorilla groups. There is always a maximum of eight tourists for one hour a day, and the price for one tourist has already exceeded $ 1,000.

During the "Our" Hour we saw the chicking pups, resting the silver-sprouted male (this is the name for the males that grow on their backs after reaching sexual maturity) and a lot of females. One of the younger males also tried to fool us into a false assault, after which some of the people were scared in bamboo, while the rest knelt on the bob and pretended to eat leaves.

It's a fascinating experience where one watches fascinatingly how gorillas are so similar to us. The survival cost is, however, very high. Trackers are near the gorillas all day long until dark, so the next morning they can navigate the park guard to the right place where the gorillas are.

The group of gorillas must then endure the invasion into their privacy, which in the end leads to a feeling of shame that they are bumping into that bamboo paradise, mixing with guilt for being like humans we are not willing to survive without destroying their nature .

It is therefore refreshing to know that in the area of ​​the volcanoes of Virunia there are also wild species of gorillas. "No, we will not try to meet them," Odile says strictly. "We let them go all the way if we meet them on the way." We descend back from Dian Fossey's tomb and we just encountered a gorilla limb print that does not seem to belong to any of the habituated groups. We are thrilled with excitement, after a while we find fresh fresheners, we feel their pungent smell and we see the freshly watered grass they just passed. We even hear them around, but we can not see them in the high stand.

We wait a little longer for some time to come, but we can not see them. It's a wonderful feeling. Knowing that there are still free gorillas who can do what they want, and do not have to submit themselves to the modest wishes of human curiosity, they are getting back to civilization much easier.

Author: Jan Stejskal, Head of Communications and International Projects Zoo Dvůr Králové

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