By Montgomery Brower
Updated February 17, 1986 12:00 PM

It had been an unusually quiet Christmas at Karisoke, American primatologist Dian Fossey’s primitive research camp 9,000 feet up the misty, tangled slopes of Rwanda’s Mount Visoke. For 18 years the isolated camp had been home to the eccentric, obsessively dedicated woman who, at 53, had spent her prime and her health on a study of the rare mountain gorilla in its dwindling rain forest habitat. Of late she had been leading an increasingly hermitlike existence, but at Christmas she would open her home to dozens of camp workers and acquaintances for a huge feast of roasted meats and vats of urwagwa, the local banana beer. This year, anticipating the arrival of a delegation of conservationists, she had postponed the celebration until New Year’s Eve. Instead she had decorated the door of her two-room corrugated tin hut with a wreath and a sign saying “Howdy,” and she put on a lamb dinner for Wayne McGuire, 34, an American graduate student also studying the gorillas, and Joseph Munyaneza, a Rwandan zoology student. The next day McGuire went out to check on some of the 70 gorillas monitored by the center. Returning at dusk, he reported to Fossey that they were all right, then turned in.

Just before 6 on the morning of Dec. 27, the sound of guards and trackers screaming in Swahili wakened the camp. Pulled from bed by Fossey’s frantic house servant, McGuire ran along the 100-yard path to Fossey’s cabin at the far edge of camp. Inside her ransacked quarters, he found the primatologist lying face up by the two beds she needed to support her six-foot frame. Her 9-mm handgun and an unused clip of ammunition were beside her on the floor. “The place was a mess, things thrown around. Her head was covered with blood,” says McGuire. “When I reached down to check her vital signs, I saw her face had been split, diagonally, with one machete blow.”

It was about five hours before Rwandan police, soldiers and officials, alerted by a message relayed by runner and radio to the nearby town of Ruhengeri, reached Karisoke. There they learned that the killer or killers, who evidently knew the layout of Fossey’s quarters, had broken in by tearing away a sheet of tin near her bed. Though the cabin had been searched, Fossey’s passport and handguns, a few Rwandan francs, $1,200 in U.S. cash and more than $1,700 in traveler’s checks were left untouched. Investigators could find no obvious motive for the killing, which was not unlike the equally baffling 1980 murder of Joy (Born Free) Adamson in Kenya. Accounts of Fossey’s vendetta against poachers who had killed some of her gorillas, her withdrawal into bitter isolation from fellow human beings, and her alleged use of black magic, or voodoo, deepened the mystery. The picture that emerged complicated the popular image of the “gorilla girl” and her “gentle giants” that the world had come to know through a stream of articles, a book, films, lecture tours and talk show appearances. “It’s as if Mother Teresa had just died,” says American ecologist Bill Weber, who worked with Fossey in the late ’70s. “But the Mother Teresas of the world don’t get bludgeoned to death in their bedrooms.”

Fossey, it appears, was no saint. Though she had boundless patience and affection for the gorillas, she was by temperament and conviction often at odds with people. “Dian had some real enemies, and at least one mortal enemy,” says Weber. “But you won’t hear this from the [Rwandan] government now.” During the past decade she had carried on an often violent campaign against antelope poachers who wantonly killed gorillas accidentally caught in their traps or sold captured gorilla babies to zoos. Though the government too sought to protect the great apes, it understandably refused to sanction Fossey’s vigilante activities, which reportedly included interrogations and beatings. Until just before her death, Rwandan authorities granted her only short-term renewable tourist visas.

Fossey rarely had more than two or three other researchers working with her, and they often left ahead of schedule, complaining of abusive behavior. Associates charge that she underpaid her Rwandan staff, firing and rehiring them at whim. She chainsmoked and suffered from emphysema aggravated by the chill, damp climate and thin mountain air. In recent years she had seldom had the energy for the arduous treks through the rain forest, and she hadn’t seen her gorillas since September. A workaholic and insomniac, she sometimes would drink heavily in the evenings, associates said, then stay up until two or three in the morning working by kerosene lamplight on correspondence and magazine articles.

Some of Fossey’s behavior bordered on the bizarre. “I get a feeling of eeriness here, a feeling of black magic,” says McGuire, standing near the mist-shrouded graveyard where Fossey buried gorillas killed by poachers. “She believed in it, I think, and she had a local reputation for being a witch.” Many Africans take witchcraft very seriously, and Fossey exploited their fear. She was known to dress up in a gorilla mask and sneak up on poachers or dance out of the forest to frighten farmers encroaching on a gorilla habitat. When a reporter came to visit her last May, she blocked the path of his Rwandan guide with some “magical” blades of grass and warned him, “If you or your people come here again, there will be death.” An associate claims she once injected a captured poacher with barbiturates. When he recovered consciousness she told him, “This time I gave you your mind back, but next time I won’t.”

During the official postmortem inventory of Fossey’s belongings, McGuire found a lock of his own hair sealed in an envelope he had used to send her a letter. He remembers that once, after he had gotten a haircut, she told him the back was uneven and offered to clip it for him. “I never realized she had kept the hair,” he says. “Maybe that’s why she got along with me—she thought she could control my being [through witchcraft].” McGuire, who since the murder has slept with a loaded rifle, a knife and a machete near at hand, believes that isolation also had its effect on Fossey. “A lot of people get strange up here,” he says. “It’s the loneliness that is hardest to cope with. You forget how to speak English, forget how to interact with humans.” Fossey herself had increasingly scorned human interaction. “I have no friends,” she once said. “The more that you learn about the dignity of the gorilla, the more you want to avoid people.”

Fossey was an occupational therapist working with crippled children in a Louisville, Ky. hospital in 1963 when she fulfilled a lifelong dream—a seven-week safari to Africa. During the trip she met renowned anthropologist Louis Leakey, who three years later, impressed by her zeal, chose her to conduct a long-term study of the mountain gorilla. Though on the verge of marriage to the scion of a British family with extensive holdings in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), she broke off the engagement to accept Leakey’s challenge.

Fossey soon found that contrary to the popular “King Kong” image of the mountain gorilla as a monstrous mankiller, the great apes were largely shy, gentle, family-oriented creatures. She managed to overcome their natural fear of humans by going down on knees and knuckles and imitating the gorillas’ behavior, even munching on the same greens while mimicking the group members’ vocalizations for contentment. Eventually Fossey was able to cuddle up to the 400-pound apes and play with their offspring, discovering that gorillas 10 to 20 times stronger than a man liked to be tickled.

Fossey’s closeness to the gorillas opened up exciting possibilities for research, but it also led her into bitter conflict with the locals. Rwandan farmers, desperate for land and driven by population pressures, had pushed the gorillas to higher, colder altitudes, where some died from pneumonia. Meanwhile, despite government patrols, poachers continued to take their toll. In the ’60s the government turned over nearly half of the national park where the gorillas live to farming. The gorilla population has slipped from more than 400 in 1960 to about 240 today.

During the 1970s Fossey’s efforts shifted from research on the gorillas to what some described as a range war against poachers. She burned their houses, created unauthorized patrols to cut trap lines, and paid the government’s own park guards to bring her captured poachers for interrogation. Acquaintances say she pistol-whipped some captives to make them name other poachers. “Dian Fossey was to gorillas what Greenpeace is to whales,” says Ian Redmond, a British wildlife biologist who spent two years at Karisoke in those turbulent times but did not participate in Fossey’s inquisitions. “She was prepared to ignore the niceties of diplomatic approaches and just get in there and do the job. She did what she considered right. But she was in many ways like the gorillas. If you’re easily put off by bluff charges, screaming and shouting, you’ll probably think gorillas are monsters, and you won’t go near them. If you’re prepared to sidestep the temper and get to know the person, you’d find that Dian, like the gorillas, was a gentle, loving person.” Bill Weber, who applauds Fossey’s pioneering research with the gorillas, disagrees. “For other people it wasn’t all bluff charges, not if you’re attacked and threatened with a gun,” he says.

Weber and his wife, Amy Vedder, worked for the Mountain Gorilla Project, which helps the Rwandan authorities develop lucrative tourism, teach conservation and combat poachers. They believe Fossey’s relentless campaign against poachers probably led to the slaughter of her favorite group of gorillas. In 1977, Fossey’s most beloved and famous animal, Digit, was speared to death and beheaded by antelope poachers when his family stumbled onto their trap lines. Fossey seemed to want revenge for his killing. “Dian decided to deal with [the poachers] her own way,” says Weber, “and within six months most of her group was wiped out. Out of 29 groups in the park, why did someone pick the group that would be sure to be found? She told us, ‘I have no husband, children. It’s just me and the gorillas.’ Poachers essentially wiped out her family.”

In 1980, having earned her doctorate in zoology from Cambridge University in England, Fossey left Mount Visoke for an 18-month teaching stint at Cornell University. When she returned in 1983, most associates seem to agree that she had mellowed. She gave more credit to the government and the Mountain Gorilla Project for cracking down on poachers; indeed, only one gorilla family is known to have been attacked by poachers in the past two years. But Fossey continued to interrogate captured poachers, resorting again to some of her old scare tactics, including black magic.

Another item found in the inventory of Fossey’s possessions has led Ian Redmond to theorize that Fossey’s meddling in magic may have caused her murder. Called from England to Rwanda last month after one of Fossey’s posthumous documents indicated she wanted him to carry on part of her work, Redmond discovered among her effects a carbon copy of a letter addressed to him that he had not yet received in the mail. Dated Nov. 24, the letter describes a captured poacher, who was brought to her cabin for questioning, as “bloody kali” (Swahili for fierce). Fossey wrote about what happened next: “I gently examined his clothing and found three packets of sumu [magic charms]—bits of skin and vegetation, all looking like vacuum cleaner debris. I still have them. Nasty lady. It was like taking a nipple from a baby. He just deflated after I took them.” When Fossey went into her bedroom to fetch money for the guards, she heard a commotion and came out to find three guards restraining the poacher from lunging for the sumu, which she had placed out of reach on the mantelpiece.

The man later was jailed. Redmond thinks the poacher, who, like all Rwandan prisoners, has constant access to his family, may have engaged assassins to break into Fossey’s cabin, kill her and retrieve the sumu packets. “This man had something he felt was of vital importance as protection to himself, and Dian took it,” he says. “I think it explains the illogical nature of the crime, that they searched the house and didn’t steal anything valuable to a European.”

Weber, Vedder and McGuire consider Redmond’s theory plausible. Though Redmond did find the sumu with some of Fossey’s personal “junk,” he suggests the killers simply didn’t know exactly what to look for, as each person’s sumu is unique. Fossey failed to awake in time to save herself. Her emphysema had reduced her voice to a croak, so she would have been unable to call for help, and others in camp were too far away to hear her. Police have been concentrating their investigation on former and present employees, but they say they will question the poacher in prison.

McGuire is carrying on Fossey’s work for now, but the future of Karisoke remains uncertain. Most conservationists would like to see the groups of gorillas around the center remain research animals, but there is talk that the government may turn Fossey’s cabin into a museum, opening up the camp to the tourists she reviled. Fossey’s body now lies buried in the graveyard among the gorillas she loved. At her request, the grave marker will be inscribed with the name the Rwandese gave her—Nyiramacibili, which means “the lady who lives alone in the forest.” In McGuire’s cabin Fossey’s African gray parrots, Dot and Dash, still fret in their cage. They were in her bedroom on the night of the murder. “They used to say ‘Jambo’[Swahili for hello] and ‘I love you,’ ” says McGuire, “but they don’t talk anymore.”