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Books: Under the Volcanoes

5 minute read
R.Z. Sheppard

GORILLAS IN THE MIST by Dian Fossey; Houghton Mifflin; 326 pages; $19.95

The local poachers called her Nyirama-chabelli, “the old lady who lives in the forest without a man.” The natives knew how to needle a middle-aged American woman who had spent the better part of 15 years slogging through Africa’s Virunga Mountains with notebook and camera. In fact, little love was lost between the poachers and Dian Fossey. She destroyed their snares, confiscated their caches of weapons and hashish, and persuaded officials to prosecute the killers of her beloved gorillas.

It is not hard to understand what launched Fossey’s gorilla war. One photo in her book shows the headless, handless corpse of a young male who had fought a rearguard action while his family escaped the spears of trophy hunters. Yes, gentle reader, there are people who will pay to have a massive primate’s head on their coffee table and use the severed hands for ashtrays.

But they had better get their orders in before the grisly supply runs out. Despite efforts to protect the mountain gorilla (as distinguished from the more numerous lowland gorilla), the great ape is drifting toward extinction. Fossey’s compassionate field study offers some solidly documented reasons. Only about 240 survivors of this subspecies of the Pongidae family remain. Their habitat, roughly 225 sq. mi. straddling three countries in Central Africa, is being reduced by members of the family Hominidae. Some are Rwandese, others Ugandans and citizens of Zaïre. And they have a few survival problems of their own.

Mountainous Rwanda, notes Fossey, is smaller than Maryland and one of the world’s poorest nations. In order to support its population of nearly 5 million (expected to double by century’s end), the “little Switzerland of Africa” keeps encroaching on portions of the gorilla preserve known as the Parc National des Volcans.

Fossey first went to Africa on a seven-week safari in 1963, worshipfully following in the footsteps of Naturalists Carl Akeley and George Schaller, whose The Year of the Gorilla popularized the behavior of the ngagi—Kinyarwanda for the shy beasts that live under the extinct volcanoes of the Virungas. Three years later, Anthropologist Louis Leakey visited her in the U.S. and suggested that she return. She worked in the Republic of the Congo until a civil war mandated a change of habitat. Her rather daring escape to Rwanda was made in a truck named Lily with two pet chickens, and a pistol hidden in a box of Kleenex.

By contrast, the naturalist advises that one should never run from a charging gorilla. Bursting through the brush with a shriek that could shatter glass, a startled full-grown male is an invitation to incontinence. But, says Fossey, the display is usually a bluff. A gorilla’s immediate response to intruders, she explains, is to protect its family, a group numbering from two to 20 members that is led by a dominant polygamous male known as a silverback. The animals are rarely excited by familiar, unthreatening visitors. Strangers who calmly hold their ground (pretending to eat grass is a disarming tactic) seldom receive more than a harmless swipe. Those who flee risk being bitten.

Fossey learned to move among the mountain gorillas like an out-of-town cousin and got even closer when she discovered they enjoy being tickled. Such proximity yielded intimate details. Individual animals can readily be identified by their noses; no two have the same shape. Silver backs exude two distinct odors. One smells like a human locker room. The other, a pungent fear scent, is released by glands in the armpit. From the author’s descriptions, family life resembles a picnic on the grass. Hulks shamble off to nibble vegetation or lie about contemplating their toes. “Naoom, naoom” is the low, belching sound of a contented gorilla.

There is a goofy nobility about these domestic scenes that leads one to ask: What do gorillas think about? Certainly not about making off with Fay Wray or Dian Fossey. Food, safety and building a nest for the night seem uppermost in those broad, sloping heads. Females in estrus have one thing on their minds: mating with their leaders who, in turn, worry about rivals. Kinship bonds are strong; encounters between unrelated groups can be bloody, and sometimes fatal to the young. Indeed infanticide occurs often enough to constitute a serious problem for the ape image. For in the end, gorillas are usually judged not as other animals but as near humans. From Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue to King Kong, we have projected our own fears, sentimentality and monstrous selves on these hapless beasts and punished them accordingly.

Fossey firmly establishes these animals in the world where they belong. She may give them cute names like Puck, Pantsy and Macho, but she maintains her scientific distance. There are enough kinship studies, spectographic charts and dung analyses to keep specialists happy. The general reader will be rewarded with adventure, in which virtually nothing has been distorted by preconception or self-absorption. Gorillas in the Mist is a work of direct and refreshing experience. If 1,000 Hamlets were chained to typewriters for eternity, they could not have written this book.

—By R.Z. Sheppard

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