By Bonnie Johnson
December 04, 1989 12:00 PM

Two weeks ago, 34-year-old American primatologist Diane Doran made the arduous ascent 10,000 feet up the tangled, mist-shrouded slopes of Mount Visoke, a dormant volcano in the Virunga Mountains of northwest Rwanda. Even more daunting than that lung-busting trek, however, is the task that she has just begun—taking over the work of a legend.

Doran’s destination is the Karisoke Research Center, a primitive three-acre enclave erected in a narrow clearing in the dense rain forest. Started in 1967 to study the rare mountain gorilla, the center became famous around the world because of the fierce, often fanatical efforts of its founder, Dian Fossey, who devoted 18 years to protecting what she called “her” apes from poachers. Fossey’s work, and her mysterious 1985 murder, became the subject of the 1988 movie Gorillas in the Mist. A doctoral student at the State University of New York in Stony Brook, at the time of Fossey’s death, Doran was “shocked and surprised, as everyone was” by the killing. Four years later, she has just become director of the renowned encampment.

The verdant remoteness of a Rwandan rain forest is a giant leap from a leafy Long Island campus, but Doran has made such leaps before. Since she graduated from Utica College in 1978, she has commuted between American academe and Africa. Although she differs in marked ways from her famous predecessor, she too is devoted to the African continent’s animals. “Seeing a chimp in the wild for the first time is very exciting,” says Doran. “You’re touched with this feeling—’I can’t believe this. I could be pushing papers at some desk, but here I am, sitting in the middle of a community of chimpanzees. It’s a rare experience.’ ”

The third of five children of a Utica foundry worker (he died in 1985) and a mother who works as a part-time public health consultant, Doran has always “had a desire to see something really different and be part of it. My family thinks it’s a bit odd.” She left college with a B.S. in biology and one goal, to go to Africa with the Peace Corps. After crash courses in French and teaching, she was shipped to Zaire, where she taught high school biology and chemistry for two years, and the experience transformed her. “For me, it was the first time that nature really came alive,” she says. Near the end of her stint she met two graduate students who were studying pygmy chimpanzees. “I had always liked anatomy and physiology, but I didn’t know how to put them into a future life,” she says. “Talking with those students, I realized, ‘Wow, that’s the thing I want to do.’ ”

Doran came home, enrolled in Stony Brook’s doctoral program and did her field work back in Zaire and the Ivory Coast on the locomotion and posture of pygmy and common chimpanzees. Last spring, doctorate nearly in hand, she was mulling over her future when she spotted a Science magazine ad from the Englewood, Colo.-based Digit Fund, which Fossey formed to administer Karisoke. “They asked for someone who spoke French, had experience in administration and behavioral studies and could carry out research as well as supervise the research work of students,” she says. “I felt like they only forgot to put my name in it.”

After evaluating 15 applicants, the fund’s board named her to the one-year post (with an option to renew for a second year) last May. “Dian Fossey was a very thorough researcher and scientist,” says Claude Ramsey, fund executive director. “Diane Doran is cast from the same mold.”

Doran is committed to preserving the mountain gorilla population and its habitat and studying gorilla behavior. But her style will be dramatically different from Fossey’s, whose relations with some Rwandan officials that she saw as uncaring and unenlightened were adversarial at best. Doran’s first mission is to introduce herself to the people at government agencies involved in her work, because, she says, “It’s important to show them I’m there to work with them.” Nor will she adopt Fossey’s hands-on relationship with the gorillas. “I would certainly try to avoid that,” she says. “I’m there to observe. I don’t want to interfere with their natural behavior.” Finally, most unlike Fossey, Doran sees some benefits in tourism, now Rwanda’s third largest source of income. “Everyone who sees the gorillas will be more aware of the perils that face them and all of the environment,” she says. “On the other hand, it’s unfair to demand conservation in a country where there are questions of feeding families and schooling children. The people who live in the area are a most important consideration.”

Doran is ready for sacrifices. “I’ll miss movies, red wine, Black Bush whiskey and bagels,” she says. “And jewelry.” She is not concerned about her safety. Thanks to the Rwandan government’s anti-poaching stand and public education, she believes public attitudes toward the gorillas have changed. “At Karisoke, Rwandan students are now being incorporated into the projects, so eventually we hope it will become a Rwandan project.” There is only one part of her assignment that frightens her. “That’s the responsibility I’ll be carrying,” she says, “to make sure that the mountain gorillas will be there always.”