Endangered Species Handbook

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Vanishing Species

Human Tragedy and the Looting of Virunga's Treasures: Page 6

     Fossey's early research was sponsored by the famed anthropologist Louis Leakey, who had earlier convinced Jane Goodall to go to Tanzania to study Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes).  Both researchers changed forever our views of these fellow primates.  Fossey began her research in the 1970s in the mountains of Rwanda, making friends with a family of Mountain Gorillas.  The silverback male of this troop, whom she named Digit, became so trusting that he was filmed by the National Geographic Society gingerly taking her pen and then her notebook, returning them to her, and then lying down and going to sleep by her side (see Video--Mammals).  These immensely strong animals never harmed any of the thousands of people, from rangers and scientists to tourists, who visited the reserve over several decades.  When they felt their family was threatened, they made shows of aggression, pounding their chests or rushing headlong through the bushes toward the potential threat, whether human or another male Gorilla, but stopping short of physical blows.  Humans, however, misinterpreted their displays, shooting and killing many silverbacks.
      Commercialization of Gorillas--the high value of their young in the exotic pet trade and the many thousands of dollars offered by zoos to obtain illegally captured specimens--has presented a major threat to the species for many decades.  Local people enter parks and reserves to shoot adults guarding the young, remove the animals’ heads and hands, and grab the traumatized babies.  Other Gorillas are killed accidentally by illegal wire snares set in the parks for antelope and small mammals.  Although efforts had been made in many parks to stop the killing of Gorillas, not until December 1977 did international attention become focused on this grisly and cruel activity.  Six Rwandans, with their hunting dogs, entered the reserve armed with spears to kill Gorillas.  They encountered Digit, who boldly rushed at them, pounding his chest.  This allowed his family to escape, but cost him his life.  The Rwandans speared him five times until he died, and then cut off his head.  Gruesome photos of Digit's headless body received enormous publicity in the media, causing shock and dismay in millions of people who had seen photos of him in gentle communication with Fossey, as well as films produced by the National Geographic Society about her research.  His death served to inspire both compassion and renewed conservation efforts for these beleaguered primates.  
     Fossey's Karisoke Research Center expanded, and thousands of tourists came to glimpse the Mountain Gorillas in their forest home.  The threat of poachers remained, however, and Fossey, after a fervent campaign to prevent further Gorilla killings, was herself killed.  Her murder has never been conclusively solved, but Rwandans are the major suspects.  She is buried in the reserve next to the grave of Digit.  Fossey recounted her experiences with Gorillas in a book, Gorillas in the Mist, which was later made into a commercial film of the same title.  The silverback star of this film was named Mrithi.  Not long after the film was made, in May 1992, he, too, was shot and killed by Rwandan soldiers, surrounded by his family of 11.  Even after being wounded, he managed to drag himself some 6 feet toward his attackers before collapsing and dying. 

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