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Fossey's first African safari, in 1963, was motivated by a dream--to see the mountain gorillas of the Virunga Volcanoes and to meet Dr. Louis Leakey at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. She disgraced herself with the Leakeys by tripping and then vomiting (from the pain of a broken ankle) on their precious fossils; and on her first venture into the bush, she was dependent on rudimentary tracking lessons from her African assistant, and on the presence and elementary camping advice of an English photographer. Nevertheless she was ""chosen"" by Dr. Leakey to carry out a long-term field study of the mountain gorilla, and well repaid his faith during her 13 years of observation and conservation activism. Here, Fossey tells the interrelated story of the five gorilla groups with whom she established rapport and the poachers with whom she did perpetual battle, demolishing their traps and pursuing them to justice whenever she could. After becoming especially well acquainted with the gorillas she designated Group 4, observing their affectionate interplay and getting to know their individual natures, it is shocking to confront the death and mutilation of their engaging sentry Digit and, later, the similar fates of silverback (dominant male) Uncle Bert and mother Macho, all of whom died in an attempt to protect the infant Kweli from capture. (Kweli, shot in the head, died later.) Fossey traced these murders, which effected the breakup of Group 4, to the Rwandese Park Conservator, who used his post to acquire gorillas for a European zoo. As ten or more gorillas are captured for every one acquired for a zoo, as three times as many are taken as are born in captivity, and as more die than are born in captivity, Fossey has no use for the captivity-to-conserve-the-species argument. Her defense of her beloved gorillas is far from sentimental, and along with the dignity of the silverback leaders, the ""impish"" charm of the young, and the impressive kinship bonds and group cohesiveness, she reports instances of infanticide, abuse of the weak, and evidence of cannibalism--along with such un-fastidious behavior as dung eating, a common habit with probable nutritional benefits. In addition to the tragic Group 4, she reports on a thriving Group 5, two other Groups which disintegrated upon the natural deaths of their silverbacks, and, in a final chapter with ""hope"" in the title, the formation of a new group around a lone silverback stranger who appeared after the decimation of Group 4 and acquired its surviving members (along with other strays, steals, and survivors). Despite this heartening example, Fossey's closing figures of human population growth seem to offer little hope for the gorilla population, which had been cut in half in the few years between George Schaller's landmark study and her own. But, as she says early on, ""I am grateful that I knew this region even as late as 1967, for it will never be the same."" Whatever the mountain gorillas' future, their immediate past is here in Fossey's vibrant and invaluable study.

Pub Date: Aug. 25th, 1983
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin