It’s time to stop lionizing Dian Fossey as a conservation hero

It’s time to stop lionizing Dian Fossey as a conservation hero

Primatologist Dian Fossey has become a conservation legend. The videos captured by National Geographic enchanted audiences and motivated them to care about mountain gorillas. Her memoir inspired many aspiring primatologists, and I was one of them. Decades after her death, the Oscar-nominated cinematic version of Gorillas in the Mist remains a classic. And Fossey’s untimely death in 1985 punctuated her story with an unsolved mystery that generates continued speculation. 

But discussions of Fossey’s “controversial” methods typically gloss over their full extent. Fossey’s “active conservation” included physical torture, psychological torture, and kidnapping of local people near her field site in Rwanda, as she enacted a neo-colonialist conservation program rooted in white supremacy. When we edit out these details when discussing Fossey’s legacy, with students and with broader audiences, and leave out the human costs of her work, we reinforce an implicitly white, Western model of conservation.

Although I had heard of Gorillas in the Mist, I had never seen the movie or read the book until I was already an aspiring primatologist. During my senior year of college, I took a class on great ape behavior, and Fossey’s memoir was part of our required reading. It became part of my treasured collection of fieldwork memoirs. A decade later in 2013, when I was about to teach my first upper-level primate behavior class at Wake Forest University, a special collections librarian told me about the Harold T. P. Hayes Papers, research materials of one of Dian Fossey’s biographers, Harold Hayes. I incorporated those materials into my class, building Fossey’s writing and research into my curriculum. My students read her work, conducted observations on captive gorillas, and did two projects with the archival materials. The final Fossey collection assignment involved students combing through the archival material to find a document pertaining to conservation and discuss its relevance to modern conservation practices.

“It is appalling enough to think of that behavior occurring in the 1850s; there is no way we can explain Fossey’s behavior in the 1970s as the product of ‘a different time.’”

When I reviewed the Hayes collection myself, I was too captivated by her research notes to examine the other documents. But when I assigned the e-portfolio project on conservation, I wanted students to come away from the assignment with the conclusion that Fossey’s “active conservation,” which viewed local communities as the enemy, was the wrong way to approach conservation. What I remembered of her controversial methods was her confrontational stance toward poachers and other local people, but one of my students came across a letter that spelled out Fossey’s tactics of torture in horrifying detail. Written in 1976 and addressed to primatologist Dr. Richard Wrangham at Harvard, the letter criticized Wrangham’s own less-controversial conservation efforts and recommended he employ Fossey’s “active” methods.* In chilling detail, Fossey described how she and her associates captured and stripped a poacher, laid him spread-eagle on the ground, and lashed his genitals with nettles. After that she engaged a “black magic routine,” which combined sleeping pills and ether with her knowledge of local cultural beliefs in black magic as a form of psychological torture. She didn’t describe these actions as mistakes driven by anger or revenge. Rather, she encouraged Dr. Wrangham to emulate her methods and promote them in future conservation talks as a successful tactic to deter poaching and encroachment of cattle grazing. 

While her tactics are often glossed over and minimized, it is not for lack of reporting that her “active conservation” methods included kidnapping and torture. People magazine reported on it in the wake of her death. Harold Hayes’ 1990 biography, The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey, incorporated these details. Reviews of this biography described Fossey as “one of the last white colonialists” and acknowledged that her actions were rooted in racism. The image of Fossey, a white American woman, whipping and torturing black African poachers is evocative of the behavior of white slaveholders in the American South. It is appalling enough to think of that behavior occurring in the 1850s; there is no way we can explain Fossey’s behavior in the 1970s as the product of “a different time.” Yet, almost three decades later, the romantic notion of a noble martyr who died for her devotion to gorillas prevails, and these terrifying actions are often described as simply unorthodox methods. Perhaps these truths are softened due to fears that the reality of this legacy would harm gorilla conservation efforts. But memorializing her as a martyr and patron saint of gorilla conservation demands that we forget the cruel acts she advocated for and performed. 

Since teaching that primate behavior class in Spring 2014, I have seen the erasure of Fossey’s actions appear, like clockwork, in popular media again and again. Articles memorializing her on the 30th anniversary of her death, a 2017 documentary speculating about her murder, and now, a new documentary, She Walks With Apes, exploring how she, Jane Goodall, Birute Galdikas inspired a new generations of primatologists, completely elide the details of her violent methods. I’ve been dismayed at the frequent positive discussions of her legacy and the infrequent acknowledgement of the harms she perpetuated. 

In 2014, I drafted a blog post about my experiences teaching with the Hayes collection, but I held off on hitting publish. In 2016 as there was again a flurry of coverage surrounding the 30th anniversary of her death, I revised the post—but again, hesitated. Senior researchers seemed reluctant to frankly discuss the harm she did, glossing over it as a product of a different time. As an early career scientist on the job market, I feared that airing primatology’s dirty laundry might endanger my career prospects, particularly when applying to zoos and conservation organizations.

I am today still an early career scientist and still on the job market. But the time has come for us to acknowledge when our scientific predecessors actively harmed people and hurt the progress of science. My current research focuses on experiences of discrimination among female scientists, especially women of color scientists. In discussions about de-colonizing science and re-examining our role models, we have begun the difficult work of taking harmful scientists down from their pedestals and portrait galleries. We don’t need any more documentaries about Dian Fossey, and we should stop invoking her legacy to inspire fundraising for gorilla conservation. If we continue to use her materials in teaching, it should only be to critically examine the historical and cultural context of early primate research. Gorillas are amazing animals, and we can tell the stories of the people that conserve them, and of the beautiful lives of these animals themselves, without invoking Fossey as a hero.

“We don’t need any more documentaries about Dian Fossey, and we should stop invoking her legacy to inspire fundraising for gorilla conservation.”

Reckoning with Fossye’s legacy must also involve interrogating why we need white women to be our heroes in primate conservation. Primatology has often been considered a feminist science due to the high numbers of women that entered the field. This is often attributed to the National Geographic coverage of Jane Goodall, Fossey, and Birute Galdikas, who inspired other women to pursue this field. Louis Leakey famously believed that untrained women had the best perspective for picking up great ape behavior. But as the descendent of British missionaries in East Africa, it is not surprising that Leakey mentored white British and North American women to engage in this research. Even as white male patrons opened the doors of science to women, those doors were extended to foreign white women. 

Like many others, Leakey’s scientific endeavors recapitulated a legacy of European colonialism, and much of the subsequent research has operated in a way that reinforces these neo-colonial norms. Of course, local men and women have played important parts in building up the infrastructure and doing the tough daily work that facilitates primate research and conservation, but it’s only recently that we have are starting to fully acknowledge their roles as equal collaborators. If we want heroes, we can look to the brave rangers that put their lives on the line to protect the gorillas. We are long overdue to lay the myth of Fossey as conservation martyr to rest in favor of properly crediting the many African scientists and rangers who work to protect and conserve gorillas. Nadia Niyonizeye, a Rwandan graduate student, is among the next generation of primatologists profiled in She Walks with Apes. Hopefully in the future, we can look to women like her as role models.

We have a long way to go in de-colonizing wildlife conservation research, but it begins with acknowledging where we have gone wrong. Fossey laid important groundwork in early research on mountain gorillas, and the international awareness she raised has been instrumental in conserving them. But we need to stop trotting out her legacy as an inspiration, and instead fully acknowledge that she was a racist neo-colonialist who tortured people in the name of conservation. Any inspiration, any conservation funding that derives from her legacy is largely a result of the mythology surrounding her rather than the reality. 

*Dian Fossey Archives, Folder: MS 596 Box 13, DF BIO, 1976 July – Dec

Image Credit: Female mountain gorilla at Rwanda Volcanoes at Karisoke, which was Dian Fossey’s research area, by Jan Fleischmann (Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0). The original image of a human and gorilla skeleton side-by-side was removed since the origin of the human skeleton was unknown.

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