Into the wild

Meet the women who are carrying out Dian Fossey’s legacy in the Rwandan highlands

Winnie Eckardt and Veronica Vecellio explain why, 30 years after the brutal murder of Dian Fossey, women still lead the field of primatology

Dian Fossey. (Courtesy The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International)

The Karisoke Research Center, in Musanze, a bustling district in the Northern Province of Rwanda, is a two-story white building with an unusual lobby installation. Many office buildings have pieces of art, perhaps a sculpture by Jeff Koons; Karisoke has two skeletons. On the right is Homo sapiens, standing erect on a dais. On the left is the giant Gorilla beringei beringei — a mountain gorilla.

Taken together, the likenesses between the two apes are impossible to miss, particularly around the hands: the installation acts as a reminder of genetic relatedness. But in a more subtle way, the skeletons also stand as a testament to the founder of Karisoke and an icon of modern primatology: Dian Fossey, the American zoologist who was killed for her close relationship to these animals. The Karisoke Research Center in Musanze continues her work. Fossey may have been murdered, but she was far from defeated.

Fossey founded the original Karisoke Research Center on September 24, 1967, and situated it between two volcanoes in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. (“Karisoke” is Fossey’s neologism, a name combining the two volcano: Mount Karisimbi and Mount Visoke.) At the time, her center was little more than makeshift tents. Its importance is hard to overestimate, though. From her base, Fossey—who the locals called Nyiramachabelli, “the woman who lives alone on the mountain”—did something nobody had ever managed to achieve before: she habituated gorillas.

“I learned to accept the animals on their own terms and never to push them beyond the varying levels of tolerance they were willing to give,” Fossey later wrote. By spending hundreds of hours sitting near them and being either ignored or abused as she mimicked their actions (scratching, eating, grunting), Fossey made the gorillas comfortable enough to tolerate humans. And once tolerated, Fossey set about amassing her groundbreaking research on the mysterious species. This research, along with previous work by George Schaller, constitutes the basis of our current understanding of mountain gorillas. Fossey also started a foundation, the Digit Fund, which is now named the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.

Fossey was killed on December 26, 1985. The identity of the assailant who bludgeoned her to death with a machete remains unknown, though there are many theories. After her death, Karisoke fell victim to the violent unrest engulfing the area. Fossey’s research center was temporarily abandoned, but then ultimately moved to its present location, where research resumed. Today, Karisoke staff are responsible for protecting a large number of the mountain gorillas living along the Virunga Mastiff. A 2010 census put the total at just 480 mountain gorillas along the Mastiff, for a world population of 880. (The other 400 live in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda; there are none living in captivity.) A new census is currently underway and will be completed this year.

As Jane Goodall, the chimpanzee expert, once reportedly said, “if Dian hadn’t done what she had, there would be no gorillas left in Rwanda to study.”

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Along with Birute Galdikas, a world leader on orangutan research, Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey have sometimes been referred to as the “Trimates”—the most prominent examples of a curious gender trend in the natural sciences that has occasionally been a subject of study in its own right: “There are significantly more women in primatology than in general biology, and more women studying primates than other types of organisms.”

These three women have also been called “Leakey’s Angels,” because they were all once professional disciples of Louis Leakey, the Kenyan paleoanthropologist who thought that studying primates in the wild might offer insight into human evolution in Africa. On her initial encounter with Leakey, Fossey later wrote: “I believe it was at this time the seed was planted in my head, even if unconsciously, that I would someday return to Africa to study the gorillas of the mountains.”

Winnie Eckardt

Winnie Eckardt. (Courtesy The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International)

“Leakey was convinced that women were a better choice [for primate research],” Winnie Eckardt, Research Manager at Karisoke, told Women in the World during a recent trip to Rwanda. “His explanation was that they’re patient, they have better observation skills for details, and they are more persistent.”

Veronica Vecellio, the Gorilla Program Manager, added that male scientists tend to prefer scientific disciplines with fast results: “We don’t need the results immediately,” she explained. “We women can gather day by day, day by day. We prefer to have the big picture rather than … rushing.”

They pointed out that the Fund’s President and CEO/Chief Scientific Officer was also a woman: Tara Stoinski, who doubles as the Director of Primate Research at Zoo Atlanta. Whatever the veracity of Leakey’s assumptions, time has tipped the scales in the direction he wanted.

Eckardt and Vecellio were both seated in Vecellio’s second-floor office at Karisoke, a concrete room sparsely decorated with photographs of mountain gorillas, like snaps from a family vacation, and a box of gluten-free cornmeal Gorilla Munch Cereal. Prominent on Vecellio’s desk was a folio of Fossey’s original notes, still relevant and used 30 years after she ceased writing them.

Vecellio became interested in primatology after reading Fossey’s book, Gorillas in the Mist, and watching the Hollywood film of the same name starring Sigourney Weaver as Fossey. “I got so inspired by her courage and her experience of being by herself in Africa,” said Vecellio, who left Italy after earning a degree at the University of Rome to practice Fossey’s techniques of primate habituation. “You can approach the animal world in many ways, but to approach the animals in the wild is a unique experience.”

Veronica Vecellio. (Courtesy The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International)

Veronica Vecellio. (Courtesy The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International)

Vecellio has been chased and bitten, she said, and endured mind-numbing periods of sitting in the field with no guarantees of success. Still, it is “completely my passion,” she continued, adding that, “What I love most about this job is that you completely reconsider the position of the human being in nature as not only being at the top of the pyramid, but being part of an ecosystem.”

Eckardt and Vecellio emphasized that the work the Fund is doing represents a continuation of Fossey’s legacy. This includes the protection: Each day an anti-poaching patrol treks into the forest to check on approximately 115 individuals. Mountain gorilla poaching has been virtually nonexistent in Rwanda since 2004; snares intended for other species have fallen dramatically. (Things remain more precarious and harder to control in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, where pressures on the endangered species include human conflict, hunting, deforestation, and illegal mining, as illustrated in Virunga, the 2014 Netflix documentary.)

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund also involves the local community in conservation efforts by offering jobs, and educational outreach programs that have witnessed a demonstrable shift in attitudes over the past two decades. Once considered a nuisance blocking access to forest resources, gorillas are now prized in Rwanda, particularly for their role in encouraging tourism.

(Photo credit: Lance Richardson)

(Photo credit: Lance Richardson)

When it comes to the research, the gorilla groups that Fossey once followed are still being studied today. Indeed, at least two individuals that Fossey named herself—Cantsbee and Poppy—remain alive in the wild. “We have information for over 400 gorillas, dead and alive,” Vecellio said. This adds up to nearly 50 years of observations. Eckardt added that a research database covering the entire period from Fossey’s founding of Karisoke onwards will eventually go online: “It will be available for everybody who is interested in studying gorillas and answering the bigger questions.”

Nevertheless, despite the prodigious material Fossey’s work is really just getting started. “It’s very important to know that we have just finished one generation completely, from birth to death due to old age,” Vecellio said. A healthy mountain gorilla has a life expectancy of 40 to 50 years.

Eckardt said, “We often get asked, ‘Why after 50 years are you still doing this? Don’t you know everything about gorillas?’”

It is easy to imagine that Fossey, with her legendary temper, would have exploded at such a question; Eckardt and Vecellio are more sanguine, though. “Life is changing for the gorillas,” Eckardt stressed. “The environment is changing. There are difficult challenges ahead for this population.”

Both of them, the women affirmed, are in this for the long game.


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