BOOKS: Gorilla Dreams: The Legacy of Dian Fossey

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2006:

Two views of–

Gorilla Dreams: The Legacy of Dian Fossey
by Georgianne Nienaber
Universe (2021 Pine Lake Road, Suite 100,
Lincoln, NE 68512), 2006. 255 pages
paperback. $19.95.

Fearless fighter for gorillas

Gorilla Dreams purports to be
posthumously narrated by the late gorilla
researcher Dian Fossey herself. Georgianne
Nienaber writes from what she believes to be
Fossey’s own perspective about how she believed
she was abused, swindled, maligned,
manipulated, used, harassed and obstructed by
cruel and corrupt people, many of them
representatives of respected mainstream
conservation charities.
Asks Nienaber in the Fossey persona,
“How much of my legacy has been used by
fraudulent conservation authorities to collect
funds from those least able to afford them, only
to have those moneys flow into corrupt coffers,
never to reach the gorillas?”

Other biographies such as Farley Mowat’s
Woman of the Mists offer accurate and well
researched accounts of Fossey’s life and
achievements, but Nienaber goes further. She
explores the relationship between Fossey and her
favorite gorillas to try to find out what sort of
person Fossey really was–and makes an eloquent
plea for recognition of cross-species spiritual
relationships: “Creationists and scientists
alike continue to damn me for my anthropomorphic
approach to gorillas, which has risen to the
stature of a mortal sin in the duel worlds of
fundamentalist religion and ‘proper’ scientific
Through the device of the common African
belief that the spirit of the deceased lives on
and guides the descendants, Nienaber uses
fictional conversation with the souls of departed
gorillas to describe the bond which must have
existed between Fossey and gorillas like Digit.
Digit asks Fossey, “What is a friend but
a single soul dwelling in two bodies?”
Fossey during her years in Rwanda fought
efforts to introduce eco-tourism with the
arguments that Volcano National Park was
unprotected and rife with poachers; tourist
interaction would habituate the gorillas and
render them easy prey to poachers; and that the
Mountain Gorilla Project, which favored
eco-tourism, had an appetite for fundraising
which was not matched by desire to protect the
gorillas from poachers.
Nienaber’s view, expressed in Fossey’s
name, is that “Even though Rwanda has received
more conservation aid than any African country,
most of that money has gone into the private
coffers of corrupt officials. This theoretical
conservation is embraced by African government
officials, foreign aid organizations and
propaganda machines, all struggling to win the
hearts and minds of the African populace. It is
hidden behind the political motives of various
aid organizations that espouse community outreach
but serve more sinister masters,” including some
of the eventual directors of the Rwandan genocide.
“I did not want the Digit Fund to be
another vague conservation plan spending half its
money on overhead, a fourth going to tickle the
egos of top ranking Africans and the final fourth
going into actual conservation schemes,” Fossey
laments through Nienaber.
–Chris Mercer
South Africa


Nienaber is convincing as the voice of
Fossey, including in her obsessive mistrust and
denunciations of almost everyone who was in
actual proximity to her, but readers will draw
differing conclusions as to Fossey’s credibility.
The major criticisms of Fossey, voiced
by many over the past 25 years or more, have
recently been summarized by acquaintances Robert
Sapolsky, who did similar studies for more than
20 years among baboons in Kenya, and Amy Vedder
and Bill Weber, Quaker peace activists and
teachers who were for a time her assistants.
Vedder was brought to the scene of Fossey’s
murder to help officially identify the remains.
Sapolsky wrote in A Primate’s Memoir
(2001) that while he initially idiolized Fossey,
he came to believe that she was the “probable
cause of more deaths of gorillas than if [she] had never set foot in Rwanda.” Her ruthless
defense of gorillas against accidental snaring by
subsistence hunters of smaller mammals led to
deliberate retaliatory massacres of gorillas,
Sapolsky believes, which led the killers to the
discovery that their remains could be sold.
Previously incidental killings rapidly became an
In The Kingdom of Gorillas, by Vedder
and Weber, details Fossey’s apparent inability
to distinguish poachers and criminals from other
Rwandans, along with binge alcoholism that
others had mentioned before Fossey ever went to
Africa. Vedder and Weber believe that Fossey’s
hostility toward Rwandans and eco-tourism mostly
helped the loggers and cattle ranchers who with
World Bank funding destroyed much of the
gorillas’ habitat.
Vedder and Weber broke with Fossey to
devote most of the next 20 years to introducing
regulated eco-tourism to give the gorillas
economic value, and to promoting ecological
education as a core curriculum in Rwandan schools.
Nienaber accurately reflects Fossey’s
antipathy toward Vedder and Weber, whom she
called “the V-W couple,” but the words and
feelings Nienaber attributes to Fossey scarcely
refute the “V-W” criticisms. Weber, for
example, is accused of laziness, a bizarre
allegation to make against anyone who travels
halfway around the world and treks up a mountain
to live for years without modern conveniences.
Sapolsky, Vedder and Weber–among many
others who visited Fossey’s Karisoke research
station—each concluded that Fossey’s obsession
with poachers inverted the actual order of
threats to gorillas and their habitat, and
overlooked the reality that if the habitat could
not be made economically productive in a manner
accommodating gorillas, it would be lost.
While the outside world generally jumped
to the conclusion that Fossey was murdered by
poachers, whose activity she detailed in
Gorillas In The Mist, it is of note that most
investigators, both then and retrospectively,
suspect that the killing was an inside job,
probably involving one or more of her many
disgruntled ex-employees. Nienaber details the
scene and the physical evidence, but draws no
Fossey was correct in her suspicion that
gorilla tourism would be exploited as a “cash
cow” by both African governments and outside
conservation groups. The Digit Fund that Fossey
herself created went through a series of messy
legal actions involving various claimants to her
legacy, resulting in the separate existence of
the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and
the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund Europe.
Responding to concerns expressed in July 2005 by
Rwandan president Paul Kagame, U.S.
Representative Jim Oberstar (D-Minnesota) in
November 2005 asked USAid to audit the Dian
Fossey Gorilla Fund International, for alleged
nonfulfillment of pledges to promote community
development in the Karisoke region.
E-mails from Nienaber to ANIMAL PEOPLE have
raised similar questions.
–Merritt Clifton

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