The man who kills the animals today is the man who kills the people who get in his way tomorrow. — Dian Fossey
A chance to see endangered mountain gorillas in the wild is the number one reason why I'm headed to Rwanda this weekend. And it's probably the primary reason most other travelers would put the tiny, central African nation on their itinerary as well.
To prepare for this once in a lifetime experience, I watched Gorillas In the Mist (1988). The movie, featuring Sigourney Weaver, recounts the story of American zoologist Dian Fossey, who traveled to the Congo in 1966 to take a census of the gorillas. The Congolese soon kicked her out, and into Rwanda, where she began her work anew.
It was fascinating to watch how she learned to mirror the gorillas' body language, behavior and sounds. By doing so, she was able to interact with them in a close and personal way. Her attachment to them resembled more of an obsession at times, and even her love interest, a National Geographic photographer named Bob Campbell, described her as “weird and wonderful.”
Watching footage of the mountain gorillas was equally fascinating. It was easy to see how Fossey became so enamored with them. The knowledge that I will soon be crouched in the jungle, observing their behavior just as she had done is still hard to believe.
Ironically, Fossey was against tourism and turning the region into a “zoo,” for fear of humans spreading disease to the gorillas, and interrupting their natural habitat. As human populations increase, however, it seems as though we have to take those risks, otherwise there is no economic incentive for local people to protect indigenous wildlife populations.
The depiction of poaching in the movie was saddening, as these majestic gorillas would have their heads, hands, and feet chopped off for a pittance in US dollars. Fossey's demise was equally violent, and remains a mystery to this day. She was buried in the same cemetery where she laid gorillas to rest.
Dian Fossey dedicated 18 years of her life to the protection of mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and she is credited with helping to save them from the edge of extinction.