The ‘gorilla lady’

Room 12 in Musanze’s popular Hotel Muhabura is special. Named the Dian Fossey Room, it goes for a special rate and is largely a preserve of special guests, all on account of its unique history, writes Moses Opobo…
Dian Fossey
Dian Fossey

Room 12 in Musanze’s popular Hotel Muhabura is special. Named the Dian Fossey Room, it goes for a special rate and is largely a preserve of special guests, all on account of its unique history, writes Moses Opobo

It is where American primatologist Dian Fossey, a gorilla conservationist, stayed when not in the mountains, where she undertook an ambitious study of gorilla groups in the Volcanoes National Park over a period of 18 years. In 1985, she was found lying dead in her hut, murdered by unknown assailants. 

“The gorilla lady” first set foot in Africa in September 1963, using her entire life’s savings to visit Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and the Congo. 

In 1966, Fossey caught up with British archaeologist and naturalist Louis Leakey, who invited her to take on a long-term study of the endangered gorillas of the Rwandan mountain forests. She gladly accepted the offer, and subsequently lived among the mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo until civil war forced her to escape to Rwanda.

Her work attracted huge international attention, and that won her a few friends but perhaps a few more enemies, a fact that is likely to have sealed her fate.

Her murder was considered unsolved until June 2001, when Belgian police captured a key suspect, Protais Zigiranyirazo, the former Governor of Ruhengeri province who, incidentally, was wanted by the International Criminal Court for his creation of death squads during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.

Legacy

Fossey’s active stand to save the animals from game wardens, zoo poachers, and corrupt government officials caused her to fight for the gorillas not only via the media, but also by destroying poachers’ dogs and traps.

Today, her work continues through the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International  under which the Karisoke Research Foundation continues to operate. After Karisoke’s original facility in Kigali was destroyed during the genocide, its headquarters were relocated to Musanze. 

Today, one of the most popular hikes around the Volcanoes National Park is the one to Dian Fossey’s Tomb and the adjacent gorilla cemetery in the former Karisoke Research Camp. 

Here, you will find the small hut from where Fossey was murdered and her grave, which sits next to that of her favorite gorilla, Digit. 

The tomb’s headstone reads:

No one loved gorillas more
Rest in peace, dear friend
Eternally protected
In this sacred ground
For you are home
Where you belong

 

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