Inside the Rwandan Forest Where One Woman Fought to Save the Gorilla
“It amazes me to think of a woman setting off into a forest in a foreign country in the 1960s on her own,” says Tara Stoinski. She’s referring to Dian Fossey, the late American anthropologist who went to Rwanda alone to study gorillas 50 years ago. “She wasn’t even trained as a scientist at the time,” Stoinski adds. “But she uprooted her life to go study an animal, which was perceived as this big, scary beast, like King Kong. She changed the trajectory for that species.”
Stoinski is the president, CEO, and chief scientific officer of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, and she’s giving me a tour through a re-creation of the original Karisoke Research Centre, Fossey’s former home and research base, which was started in the Volcanoes National Park in 1967. Today, the Karisoke Research Centre (which has relocated to a bright-white building in Musanze, Rwanda) still serves as a research base and the headquarters for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. Inside, there is also a museum that pays homage to Fossey’s key findings and showcases items from her former home and work base.
Without Fossey’s aggressive work, for which she dedicated her life to studying and protecting gorillas, it’s almost unquestionable that they’d be extinct. The gorilla population is still at risk, but when Fossey first moved to Rwanda, they were under even greater threat. “To go on your own to a place like Rwanda — which was fairly unknown to many Americans at the time — and live by yourself at 10,000 feet in really harsh climatic conditions to study these animals is really amazing,” Stoinski says. “And then, to face the challenges with the poaching of gorillas — that’s emotionally devastating.”
Fossey became prominent following an article she wrote for _National Geographic_ in 1981 about the loss of her favorite gorilla, Digit, who was killed by poachers. “It was Digit, and he was gone,” Fossey writes. “The mutilated body, head and hands hacked off for grisly trophies, lay limp in the brush like a bloody sack.” Losing Digit devastated Fossey, and so following his death, she set up the Digit Fund to protect and monitor gorillas.
Dian Fossey plays with two young mountain gorillas in the wild.
Today, the fund (now called the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund) has 170 employees working closely with the Rwandan government and park authorities to preserve and monitor the animal. At the helm of this organization is Stoinski, who, with her tumbling brown hair and visionary work, could be likened to Fossey herself. A scientist who studied animal behavior and never intended to focus on gorillas, Stoinski has found herself working with them for 23 years. “I can’t imagine working with anything else,” she reflects.
Stoinski spends a large portion of her time traveling to promote the fund and Fossey’s legacy, especially this year, for the fund’s 50th anniversary. By the end of 2017, she will have been to more than twenty cities and three continents to give lectures on Fossey and how the fund is continuing her legacy.
Stoinski — a single mom of two daughters — says her work certainly has its challenges. “It’s not easy, but I feel privileged to be making a difference,” she says. “I’m lucky that my daughters understand and that I have a great support system that enables me to do this.” Even after losing her husband, the thought of giving up on the organization, the gorillas, and the people she had been working with for over a decade felt unimaginable. At a moment when she could’ve thrown in the towel, she chose to continue her work with the organization. “I am the most public face, but there are over a hundred people in Rwanda that are out there every day, protecting the gorillas, working with local communities, helping to train young scientists. It’s a village effort,” Stoinski says. “When Dian was there, she did not have a large team and the active support of the park service like we do today.”
I go on my own gorilla trek to meet the animals that Fossey dedicated her life to. The morning of the hike, I’m fortunate to wake up to sunny skies and mild temperatures (the rain can make the hike even more challenging), but I still face mud and thick brush on the path to Volcanoes National Park, where the gorillas roam. To say that living in this damp environment in a makeshift home (as Fossey did) miles from civilization would be challenging is an understatement. Despite the beautiful landscape, for most, living in the thick of the forest would be purgatory.
I follow François Bigirimana, a senior gorilla-trekking guide, and his team of trackers, who camp out in the forest for days, through the unruly vegetation, sloshing through boggy pools and sliding past stinging nettles. Bigirimana is one of the few people who had the privilege of working with Fossey. “What was she like?” I ask. “Like a gorilla!” he declares. To succeed in this sort of environment, you’d need to be.
Dian Fossey travels to study mountain gorillas in the wild.
After roughly two hours of hiking, we come face to face with the gorillas. Suddenly, everything melts away, and it’s impossibly easy to see why Fossey did what she did: I watch how they move, curious but largely unfazed by our presence. They pick at shrubs and tumble in the vegetation. At one point, an inquisitive baby rolls over to my feet and stares into my eyes, almost willing me to play with it — just like a small child would.
The next time I chat with Stoinski is on the phone back in New York. Since I last saw her in Rwanda, she’s been hauling herself across the globe, garnering support for the fund’s 50th anniversary. She’s also been busy working with _National Geographic_ to create (1), a mini-series celebrating Fossey’s life and work, which is now airing. On a smaller scale, Stoinski has helped the fund gain a following through its website and social media. In one of its campaigns, you can adopt a gorilla and get updates on its progress.
Next, the fund hopes to expand into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country that is rife with civil unrest and where gorillas are at greater risk. It’s a difficult landscape to navigate, but the animal is in dire need of help. Stoinski won’t sit back and let the gorilla population dwindle. “I always think of the power of one — can one human being make an impact? To me, the story of Dian is really the story of what one person can do.”
Continuing Fossey’s legacy, Stoinski and her team have helped the gorilla population grow significantly. _”_It was thought that mountain gorillas would be extinct by 2000, but instead, they’re one of the few conservation success stories out there,” Stoinski says. The reality remains that gorillas are still on the brink of extinction. “They all need our help, they all need a voice, and it can’t fall on the governments of these countries alone,” Stoinski adds. “They are a world treasure, and we all need to work together to ensure a future for them.”
_Mary Holland is a writer and former_ GQ _editor. Born and raised in South Africa, she now resides in New York City._