Mountains in the mist - field work in the past and the present
Updated: Dec 14, 2019
Recently, while browsing through my home library, I came across a book I had read several decades ago. This book was about mountains, nature conservation, and animal behavior, all ingredients that already fascinated me as a child. No surprise that I bought this book when I found it at a yard sale. Most of you may know Gorillas in the mist by Dian Fossey, published in 1983. The book was well received by the public and remains popular to this day. If, by any chance, you have not read this book, you likely know the 1988 movie of the same name, featuring Sigourney Weaver as Dian Fossey.
Gorillas in the mist narrates Fossey's first thirteen years among the Mountain gorillas whose range is limited to the six extinct volcanoes of the Virunga range (which may now be opened to Oil companies), located in small portions of three countries: Zaire (now Congo), Rwanda, and Uganda. It remains an invaluable testament to one of the longest-running field studies of primates and reveals Fossey’s undying passion for the greatest of the great apes.
As I flipped through the book in my hands, I realized that I did not remember its contents very well, and decided to read it again, this time not with the eyes of a child, instead with those of a researcher who started her carrier as a behavioral ecologist and is currently studying mountain ecosystems within the project P³.
“I always stressed the difficulties, the lack of comfort, the isolation”
Most of the book is dedicated to the description of Fossey’s discoveries on the social behavior of Mountain gorillas, covering thirteen years in the lives of four gorilla families in Central Africa. However, some passages of the book, which had not marked me at first reading, caught my attention this second time. Fossey was sharing her thoughts and reflections on the field work and the difficulties related to physical effort and lack of comfort, for her, but especially for her field assistants. Although these paragraphs were written decades ago and Fossey’s study was carried out in a remote African rain forest, these paragraphs echoed my own more recent experiences.
Fossey wrote*: “In eleven years, I tried to train twenty-one students to become censors at Karisoke. Most were not able to make the necessary efforts and only stayed briefly at the camp. Stupidly, I had imagined that everyone shared my enthusiasm for the mountains and gorillas. It had never occurred to me that the exhausting walks on muddy trails, the nights spent in wet sleeping bags, the awakenings when jeans and wet boots were put on, and dry biscuits were swallowed for breakfast, did not exactly fit everyone's idea of paradise”.
She continued*: “Most of the student censors, as well as my possible assistants, were recruited by correspondence. Their letters were accompanied by impressive academic references. I rarely had the opportunity to meet them personally before their arrival because, at that time, I rarely left Karisoke and only made brief trips to the United States or England. Whenever possible, however, I tried to interview them before recruiting them.
It soon appeared to me that it was impossible to predict the reactions of individuals on the field. The candidates certainly thought that their camping experiences in America or Europe and their interest in gorilla research gave them the qualities required to work in the Virunga. I always stressed the difficulties, the lack of comfort, the isolation, but the enthusiasm of the newcomers and my optimism often outweighed the caution. […]. In Karisoke, the difficulties may have been increased by the climatic conditions, the altitude, the little varied diet and the isolation”.
(* please note that I translated the French translation back to English, which thus may slightly differ from the original text).
“At night the forest creaked and groaned, and could seem like a terrifying place” says Ian Redmond, gorilla conservationist, who worked closely with Fossey for over three years. Danger was not only imaginary, but also real. Fossey concluded with “anecdotes” about a professor in botany burning his cabin, a student doing the same, another student permanently getting lost in the jungle, and finally a PhD student being almost killed by a female buffalo, “which charged him and gave him multiple horns” detailed Fossey.
Fieldwork in high altitude mountain lakes for P³
Fieldwork is very special and demanding work, no question here. However, I was struck by Fossey’s words, since most of what she had written remains relevant today for mountain research, but also by the fact that physical effort, discomfort, lack of hygiene and isolation are very personal and relative notions. Most of Fossey’s students who found the working conditions at Karisoke awful would probably have been enchanted by the accommodation conditions we are able to offer our students in the Pyrenees within the project P³: a full equipped house (single room, hot shower, fridge, washing machine, tv, internet connection), closest grocery store less than 5 km away (supermarket <10 km), when, these days, some students are scared as soon as they cannot connect to the internet for a whole day... or just a few hours... But maybe some of Fossey’s students who adapted well to the difficult living conditions at Karisoke would not have appreciated, or been able to provide, the physical effort required by sampling in the sunny, rocky and steep Pyrenees or the Sierra Nevada. Or they may have found the small village in which they stay too crowded (less than 200 inhabitants).
When recruiting young researchers, students and field assistant for P³ (and previous mountain projects in which I was involved or directed), special care was taken to find highly motivated colleagues, who are aware of the difficulties linked to sampling in high altitude lakes. But as for Fossey in the 70s, most of the time, it is simply impossible to first bring potential candidates on the field for a test session. Hence, we have to rely on the declarations of the candidates that they are fit for such demanding physical effort, ready… and able… to work long hours in difficult climatic conditions (rain, snow, mist, thunderstorm, hailstorm, sun, etc.), to carry heavy backpacks full of sampling material, to spend nights in mountain huts, without the possibility of taking a hot shower, or even just a shower, and the obligation to share a dormitory with other hikers, sleeping in sheets that have not been changed since a while, on top of having no phone or internet connection. So far, we had a drop out rate of about 25%, meaning every forth student we had recruited could not make it to our sites. And for all the conditions of our field work were hard. Not sure how many would have stayed, if our base camp would have been in the mountains and a return to civilization would have been only occasionally. Maybe 10%?
Dian Fossey’s legacy: concerted conservation efforts
(source of information: https://gorillafund.org/)
September 24, 2017, marks 50 years since pioneering (and controversial) scientist Dian Fossey established the Karisoke Research Center in the remote Rwandan forests to study the little-known mountain gorillas. Her legendary work revolutionized the world’s understanding of gorillas and changed the course of history for a species that many thought would be driven to extinction before the year 2000. It also took her life, as she was killed in her remote cabin in the Virunga Mountains in 1985. It is believed that her fight against poachers and encroachment by herds of cattle through unorthodox methods might have killed her. Wearing masks to scare poachers, burning snares, spray-painting cattle to discourage herders from bringing them into the park, and, on occasion, taking on poachers directly, forcing confrontation, were part of these controversial methods. She referred to her tactics as “active conservation,” convinced that without immediate and decisive action other long-term conservation goals would be useless as there would eventually be nothing left to save. These tactics were not popular among locals who were struggling to get by. Additionally, the park guards were not equipped to enforce the laws protecting the forest and its inhabitants.
Mountain gorilla is one of two subspecies of the Eastern gorilla. At the time Dian Fossey started her study, gorillas, the largest of the living primates, had never really been observed and studied closely. Only about 240 members of this subspecies survived at the time of her study, divided in only two populations (one in Virunga, one in Uganda). The groups were threatened with extinction in the same century they had first been scientifically observed. There were about 475 individuals in the early 1960s, but their numbers were dwindling due to poaching and habitat loss. In the early 1980s the population dropped to about 254 individuals.
Shortly before she was killed, Fossey said that there would be no mountain gorillas left within 15 years. She was wrong. A census one year after her death revealed that their numbers had slowly but steadily been increasing. Fossey was murdered before she could learn that her work had paved the way for mountain gorillas to begin recovering. Her research laid the foundations for much of what has since been learned about gorillas, allowing the creation of a successful and well-managed conservation and ecotourism industry. Even today, mountain gorillas are believed to be one of the few apes whose numbers are not in decline. They remain critically endangered, but the trend is upwards. In early 2016 a new census will reveal how their numbers have changed since the last surveys of the two populations, in 2010 and 2012, which put the total number at 880. Although the population of mountain gorillas is growing, the numbers are critically small, making them among the most-endangered mammals on the planet.
Today, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund operates the Karisoke Research Center and is a leader in saving critically endangered gorillas in Africa, with 160 field staff engaged in daily gorilla protection, scientific study, educational initiatives, and support to improve lives of local human communities. “If it were not for Dian Fossey, mountain gorillas would likely be extinct today.” says Dr. Tara Stoinski, who leads the Fossey Fund today as president and CEO/chief scientific officer.
The last sentence in Fossey’s diary was ‘’When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.’’
Additional information can be found here: https://gorillafund.org/