By Sigourney Weaver, Fossey Fund Honorary Chair and Dr. Tara Stoinski, Fossey Fund President and CEO/Chief Scientific Officer
This year we celebrated the 40th anniversary of Dian Fossey’s book Gorillas in the Mist, the 35th anniversary of the movie based on the book, starring Sigourney as Dian, and a documentary featuring our incredible Ellen DeGeneres Campus in Rwanda that represents a new future for gorillas and conservation in the region.
Dian Fossey’s writing about her years living among the mountain gorillas and learning about the intricacies of their family lives inspired many of us around the world. Her writing reflected a deep love for these magnificent creatures, but also revealed her increasing grief, passion and anger each time a gorilla was lost to a poacher’s snare or spear. Unfortunately, she did not live to see the film, having been killed in her cabin three years earlier, on Dec. 26, 1985.
Both of us have had the unique experience of following in Dian’s muddy footsteps, seeing the dense forest as she must have seen it. We’ve sat in the sun, fog or rain, semi-oblivious to stinging ants and nettles, watching gorillas play, cuddle, bicker, snack or take a post-lunch nap.
The more we learn about gorillas, the more it’s clear they’re so much like us. We share 98% of our DNA, and we see it in the way they care for their most vulnerable, form enduring friendships, and mourn their dead. Our interconnectedness is indisputable.
Dian said, “When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what’s past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.” Her studies and the decades of work that followed are helping people understand the direct connections between saving endangered species, saving our planet and – as we’re increasingly realizing – saving ourselves.
A fragile conservation success
Today, because of decades of the intensive, daily, on-the-ground protection measures Dian pioneered, mountain gorillas are a rare conservation success story. They are the only non-human great ape whose numbers are increasing – a remarkable outlier at a moment when one million plants and animals are in danger of extinction.
Despite their fragile success, the future for mountain gorillas is uncertain. Their small population size, climate change and human activity threaten their well-being and their biodiverse habitats. Even less certain is the fate of their close cousins, the Grauer’s gorillas of eastern Congo, whose populations have declined 60% in past decades. Grauer’s gorillas, and the more commonly known western lowland gorillas, live in the Congo Basin – the second-largest tropical forest remaining on the planet. It is so crucial to the overall health of our environment that it is called the “lungs” of the earth, a natural defense against climate change.
It’s almost as if gorillas sense the importance of where they live. Gorillas act as the gardeners of the forest, helping to keep it healthy through their daily behaviors. Their role in this critical ecosystem reverberates across thousands of miles to the air and climate where we live. For our own health and survival, we need those forests. As a result, we need to save gorillas.
We’re watching climate change play out in real time – wildfires in unexpected places, hurricanes in the desert, floods and record-setting ocean temperatures. In the habitats where gorillas live, we’re seeing effects of warmer temperatures on indicator species like birds, insects and amphibians. Plant regeneration patterns are changing, bird elevational ranges are increasing, wetlands are shrinking – all suggestive of the effects of a warming planet. It’s clear: another way gorillas and humans are connected is that our futures are at risk.
Mountain gorillas show us the level of sustained effort it takes to save a species: an unwavering boots-on-the-ground presence, broad financial support, government leadership and community involvement. It’s a lot, and it’s a lot to scale globally to save all wildlife. We need massive public and private commitment to prevent the extinction of iconic megafauna like gorillas, rhinos, elephants and lions and the thousands of other species that share their habitats. In so many wild spaces, conservationists simply lack the funds to tackle the enormity of the challenges.
Humans are perhaps the most perplexing of all great apes. Even Dian said she found her own species difficult to understand. When Dian saw what was happening to the mountain gorillas at the hands of poachers, she was frustrated, passionate, angry and inspired. What would she say about the current lack of urgency about our planet?
As we mark milestone anniversaries in Dian’s life, work and story, we reflect on one of her most enduring legacies: showing us what it takes to save animals from disappearing forever. To us, gorilla conservation matters more than ever, as an example of what we can do and what we still need to do.