Another important attraction worth visiting within the Volcanoes National Park is the Dian Fossey Tomb. Dian Fossey was an American Zoologist, referred as a “gorilla champion” because she spent 18 years of her life conducting studies about the critically endangered Mountain gorillas. She was born on 16th January 1932 in California but grew up a lonely life comprised of rejection and lack of parental love from her step father, after her parents divorced. This led to her seeking solace and natural love/joy from animals. When Dian Fossey was only 6 years old, she started horse riding and later joined her hospital friend to work on a farm immediately after graduating in 1954 with a Bachelor’s degree in Occupational Therapy, from the San Jose State College. Initially her dream was to be a veterinarian but didn’t qualify because she didn’t pass chemistry. But that didn’t not stop her from realizing and following her passion of working with animals.
Her 18 years journey of working with animals started in 1963 when she met Sir Louis Leakey and his wife Mary Leakey while on a trip to Africa. These two people were a foundation of encouragement because they always financed her works and trained her on primatology to gain the necessary knowledge and skills required to work with animals. She got her way to DRC where she set up a camp in Kabara and started her study on Mountain gorillas. Unfortunately for her, some armed soldiers flounced into her camp and accompanied her together with the team, then jailed them in Rumangabo for a fortnight. Because she was scared for her life, she had to find an escape way which was by bribing Walter Baumgartel of Travelers Rest Hotel (in Kisoro, Southern western Uganda) but unfortunately her escort was arrested.
After considerable advise from Louis Leakey who was at the time in Tanzania, Dian Fossey chose not to go back to the insecure Congo, but that did not discourage her instead she connected to Rwanda where she set up the research Camp between Mount Karisimbi and Mount Bisoke and was later referred as “Karisoke” after combining the two names Karisimbi and Bisoke Mountains. By 24th September 1967, she succeeded in setting up the Karisoke Research Center, a distant rainforest Camp situated in the Northern Province of Musanze in the middle of two volcanoes standing at an estimated attitude of 9842 feet up Mount Bisoke and covers an area of 2500 hectares. During her time in Rwanda, she started anti-poaching patrols and campaigns with her employees while rescuing some of the mountain gorillas whose parents were killed by poachers. She made friends with some of the locals, who named her “Nyiramachabelli” meaning a woman who lives in the forest alone. It is undeniable that her anti-poaching patrols also led to animosity among the local community members. However, much of her work was beneficial because she found approbation and calmness with the mountain gorillas where she even made friends with a Silverback named Digit. The death of this silverback in 1978 as he was trying to protect Kweli a baby gorilla from poachers was a big blow in Dian Fossey’s heart. This increased her bitterness for the poachers and intensified her anti-poaching campaigns, creating more friends and enemies as well.
Dian Fossey was eventually murdered on the 26th December 1985 in her cabin. Up to date, her death still remains a mystery because her murderers have never been discovered. The film “Gorillas in the mist” was produced to document her story and journey towards the conservation of these critically endangered mountain gorillas. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International keeps her legacy and work to continue because this foundation monitors the 10 gorilla groups in Volcanoes National Park.
When you trek through the jungles to see her grave, you will find some words inscribed on her gravestone
‘“Wowe Nyiramachabelli wakunze u Rwanda
Ukihebera Ingagi Izo zo mu Birunga
Karisoke iyi wahanze ikaba ikubikirive
Iti gira Amahoro uwurukundo rudakangwa umubeto
Imana igube iruhuko radashira
In English meaning
No one loved Gorillas more
Rest in Peace, Dear Friend
In this sacred ground
For you are home
Where you are
How the Dian Fossey Hike is Conducted
The Dian Fossey grave trek takes 2-4 hours depending on the hiker’s level of physical fitness and starts from the headquarters where tourists arrive by 7am for briefing on what is expected. With the appropriate dressing and the right hiking gears like a walking stick you will be ready for the hike.
Thereafter drive to the trailhead at the base of Mount Bisoke, and then walk to the border of the Park while relishing the magnificent views of the Virunga Volcanoes. This hike will break at Mount Bisoke (at 9734 feet), then hike in the direction of the Mount Karisimbi (between 9515 feet and 9843 feet) where the Karisoke Camp is found. There is Dian Fossey’s grave next to her favorite Silverback-Digit. After taking photographs, you then prepare to go back to their starting point.
In conclusion, Dian Fossey was one of the few conservationists that spear headed gorilla conservation in Rwanda. Even after her death, gorilla tourism still continues because of the strong foundation she set for conservation. A visit to the Grave will change your perception on the gorillas (if you had a negative perception) and make you appreciate these Giant Apes of their value and understand how some people would risk their lives for their survival