BOOKS: No One Loved Gorillas More
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2006:
No One Loved Gorillas More: Dian Fossey Letters from the Mist
by Camilla de la Bedoyere with photographs by Bob Campbell
National Geographic Society (1145 17th St. NW, Washington, DC
20036), 2005. 191 pages, illustrated. $30.00 hard cover.
World Atlas of Great Apes & Their Conservation
edited by Julian Caldecott & Lera Miles
University of California Press (2120 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA
94704), 94704. 424 pages, illustrated. $45.00 hard cover.
A case could be made that if Dian Fossey had not authored
Gorillas In The Mist (1983), the World Atlas of Great Apes & Their
Conservation would not exist.
Even if Julian Caldecott and Lera Miles had managed to
compile the World Atlas of Great Apes, it probably would not have
been published in a volume with 150 color photos, 50 maps, and a
preface by United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan. The heavily
footnoted text would be buried in obscure scholarly journals, not
piled on coffee tables.
Annan probably would never have written, “The great apes are
our kin. Like us, they are self-aware and have cultures, tools,
politics, and medicine.”
Before Fossey, astute African politicians did not
acknowledge kinship to the other apes. Even if they recognized
evolution as a verity, unlike some U.S. counterparts, such a
statement might have been seized upon by poltical foes as “racist.”
Great apes had neither political currency nor much cash currency
going in their favor. More scientists were trying to establish
laboratories in Africa to exploit access to wild chimps than were
working to keep great apes in the wild.
Jane Goodall began studying chimpanzees at Gombe before
Fossey began studying gorillas at Karisoke. Berute Galdikas, the
third of anthropologist Louis Leakey’s “Leakey’s angels,” began
studying orangutans in Indonesia soon afterward. Galdikas has yet to
write a popular book, but Goodall enjoyed some early success,
starring in a 1963 documentary by National Geographic, the major
sponsor of their work, and publishing four books in 1970-1972.
Of those books, however, only In The Shadow of Man (1971)
was a commercial hit, and she didn’t star in another documentary
until 1984, or publish any new books from 1972 to 1986. Twelve of
Goodall’s 13 major film credits and 19 of her 23 books followed
Gorillas In The Mist, as Goodall demostrated the poise and charisma
to build upon Fossey’s breakthrough to recognition, while Fossey
herself did not.
Fossey scored the hit that made conserving great apes a
global cause, of the prominence of saving whales.
Yet a case could also be made that if Fossey had not been
murdered in her cabin at Karisoke on December 26, 1985, Annan could
not have argued that, “Saving the great apes is also about saving
people…By conserving the great apes, we can also protect the
livelihoods of the many people who rely on forests for food, clean
water, and much else.”
Educated as an occupational therapist, Fossey appears to
have become disillusioned with people long before relocating to
Rwanda. Life at Karisoke accentuated her reclusive tendencies.
Though unable to work alone, and eventually barely able to do field
work at all due to emphysema, Fossey tried as much as possible to
isolate the Karisoke gorillas from other humans, discouraging
eco-tourism and research that she considered useless or intrusive.
The poachers Fossey pursued apparently caught gorillas
chiefly by accident, at first, while trying to snare small hooved
animals. They avenged themselves deliberately on gorillas later.
Whether a poacher murdered Fossey, or a disgruntled employee, has
never been established, but she had so many enemies that there were
a multitude of suspects, and she had no friends who were willing or
able to identify the killer.
Fossey beyond doubt saved the gorillas, yet most of the sort
of gorilla conservation celebrated by Annan and the World Atlas of
Great Apes could not have been done without removing her from the
scene–as her sponsors were trying to do at her death.
Goodall, photographer Bob Campbell, and International
Primate Protection League founder Shirley McGreal, among many
others, now feel compelled to defend Fossey–along with scholars
Camilla de la Bedoyere and Georgianne Nenaber, who never knew her,
but have studied her correspondence.
Nenaber has several times written to ANIMAL PEOPLE in objection to
book reviews that mentioned the critical perspectives of close
associates Bill Weber and Amy Vedder, and Robert Sapolsky, an
acquaintance who has done comparable studies of baboons in Kenya.
Nenaber contributed the longest of 11 appreciations of Fossey
included in the December 2005 edition of IPPL News, along with a
synopsis of remarks by primatologist Geza Teleki.
Science vs. literature
Together, Fossey’s IPPL defenders make a formidable case for
her. Clearly Fossey did much to encourage McGreal in building IPPL
into a globally active, effective, and influential voice for all
nonhuman primates–and for primate defenders who run afoul of corrupt
But even Campbell and fellow primatologists Colin Groves and
Ian Redmond mention in their IPPL appreciations Fossey’s mood swings
and other odd behavior.
No One Loved Gorillas More is de la Bedoyere’s contribution
to the defense. It includes some of Fossey’s letters, but consists
mainly of de la Bedoyere’s contextual introduction to Fossey’s life
De la Bedoyere acknowledges that as Weber and Vedder observed in The
Kingdom of Gorillas, Fossy “lacked the necessary personality traits
to adapt and build on her own success.”
Earlier, de la Bedoyere mentions how Weber, Vedder, and
others “recognized that her mental health was deteriorating,” but
asserts that “few showed her any compassion, or knew how to help her
escape from the black depths of her anguish.”
Resisting the help that was offered, Fossey retreated into
alcoholism, while those around her struggled to cope with a leader
who could no longer lead.
In truth, Gorillas In The Mist was more a literary
achievement than a work of science. The science in it lent weight to
Fossey’s plea for gorillas, but she caught public interest with her
story. The film version of Gorillas In The Mist starred Sigourney
Weaver to dramatize the plot, not the research.
There lies a paradox. Had Fossey been only an influential
one-book author, no one would care much about her reputation.
Authors are allowed to be depressives, drunks,
misanthropes, and on the losing side of political controversy, if
they also spin a compelling tale. Fossey has supporters who perceive
that her reputation needs defending chiefly because she was also a
Most and perhaps all of the army of contributors to the World
Atlas of Great Apes have more advanced degrees and more credits in
scholarly journals. Thousands of footnotes testify to their
diligence. A person who starts reading the World Atlas of Great Apes
with little knowledge of apes could pass for an expert by the final
Yet few people will peruse the World Atlas of Great Apes
cover-to-cover–possibly none. Despite the wealth of knowledge
within it, it will be used chiefly as a library reference for term
papers. None of the contributors have the individual creative flair
of Dian Fossey, and even if one or two did, the collective format
would bury it.
Term papers will be based on the World Atlas of Great Apes
because of the enduring influence of Gorillas In The Mist. Many of
the authors enjoy careers in primatology primarily because Gorillas
In The Mist inspired them, and inspired foundation trustees to make
grant money available to further great ape research.
Fossey is mentioned on only five pages, all in passing. Her
reputation has passed from citations by scientists to analysis by
literary biographers, whose interest hints that she will continue to
be read and be influential long after all the present science becomes