The American researcher Dian Fossey’s Grave is located in a beautiful meadow nestled between the Karisimbi and Visoke volcanoes, for anyone interested in gorilla conservation or Research in Rwanda, or interested in Fossey’s personal story, the trek to her grave is highly recommended. This trek starts early in the morning and can take 6 to 8 hours.
Dian Fossey was born in 1932 in California and began her gorilla studies that would make her famous in 1966. Initially she briefly started studying gorillas in the wild in the now Democratic Republic of Congo but due to the increasing insecurity she relocated to Rwanda in 1967 up to 1985 when she was brutally murdered by poachers.
In Rwanda, she set up a camp by Mt Bisoke which is part of the Virunga range of volcanoes of which the Rwandan part is the Volcanoes National Park, or Parc National des Volcans (PNV). Incidentally, the volcanoes on the Rwandan side of the range are all dormant or extinct but are active at Mt Nyiragongo in the DR Congo which remains dangerously active up to today.
In the Virungas, Fossey gradually habituated a group of gorillas to her presence in order to get to know their behavior from up close this enabled her to shot to worldwide fame when images of her interaction with gorillas appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine But her scientific research results also gave her credibility to the point of being recognized as the world’s leading expert in mountain gorilla behavior.
She was also a committed fighter against poaching which was one of the main reasons why the mountain gorillas were becoming so critically endangered plus also to create awareness about loss of habitat due to humans encroaching on the territories of gorillas.
Her stand against poaching and the methods she employed against it also made her a controversial figure. For instance she exploited the locals’ leaning towards superstition by scaring poachers off in Halloween horror masks which earned her the epithet of being a “witch” moreover she was said to have a difficult character as regards to the interaction with humans in general as the word goes she apparently liked and cared for gorillas more than people.
Although she was reclusive at her Karisoke research base, she still relied heavily on people like the porters and other workers to the members of the scientific community. She even took up the position of a visiting professor at Cornell University in 1980 and published a book Gorillas in the Mist
Fossey had a lot of tragedies she faced one of the famous ones being the tragic loss of one of her gorillas named Digit which was named so because of an unusually formed finger. This was a male adolescent gorilla with which Fossey managed to form a particularly close bond. Images of the two interacting are world famous. But in 1977 Digit was found killed, presumably by poachers, decapitated and with his hands cut off. The gorilla’s hands at that time were still sold and used as an ashtray souvenir which is almost unthinkable now days.
The loss of Digit made Fossey even more determined in her fight against poaching, but this incident allegedly also broke her heart which further bolstered her opposition to habituating gorillas for tourism purposes her argument being that the more gorillas are accustomed to the presence of visiting humans, the easier prey they’d become for poachers. Digit was buried, alongside other dead gorillas, near Fossey’s Karisoke research station.
But on the fateful Boxing Day in 1985 a suspected poacher entered Fossey’s cabin and murdered her with a machete she had taken off poachers years earlier. The case remains a mystery to this day. It was at first alleged that the perpetrator must have been a poacher, out for revenge, perhaps. However, the case was never solved and remains the subject of various conspiracy theories. Fossey was laid to rest in her gorilla cemetery, next to Digit but unlike her gorillas’ graves, which are marked only with simple wooden signs; her grave is adorned with a proper tombstone.
Though she was killed, her legacy remains strong because she’s credited with basically saving the gorillas from likely extinction through her work. This was further boosted when the movie based on her life “Gorillas in the Mist” shot on location, was released in 1988
The value of gorilla trekking is a crucial contributing factor to the relative safety of the mountain gorillas these days. Not only is gorilla tracking a major source of income for Rwanda, it also means that it has widely become accepted that gorillas are worth protecting than dead and poaching has more or less ceased. Tourism revenue also keeps a large number of park rangers/guides and trackers with jobs and in addition feed into the local community. Thus the situation today looks a lot more optimistic than in Dian Fossey’s days. The overall numbers of the gorilla population in the Virungas to which mountain gorillas are endemic has gradually increased from as few as 250 or less in the late 1960s to well over 800 today.
The Karisoke Site
The Karisoke site had been abandoned in the troubled days of Rwanda in the 1990s especially with the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The cabins had been looted and destroyed. Today, the research station has been reclaimed and refurbished and is now known as The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and although very little remains of the original Karisoke site, it has become something of a pilgrimage site for some, especially, those who come to tour her grave site, but also that of her gorillas. In fact, the cemetery has continued to be used for burials of gorillas from the original group studied by Fossey.
Although the site is hardly a mass tourism attraction and draws significantly lower numbers of visitors it is still recommended not only for die-hard dark tourists but to anyone who comes to visit Rwanda.
What there is to see: Apart from Fossey`s grave site and the surrounding gorilla cemeteries, there’s only a few rudimentary remains of the former Karisoke camp and It is more of a a pilgrimage to pay homage to one of the pioneer conservationists of the gorillas plus the scenery alone is well worth the exhaustion. There’s also abundant like the chameleon for instance and the monstrous worm
The Karisoke site itself has various marker signs dotted around that point out where which part of the camp/research centre was. Mostly there’s little to nothing to see by these signs. A notable exception is the workers’ house, of which a wooden frame and bits of roof remain
After paying your respects one can retreat to a little round wooden shelter for a rest and maybe a snack if you carried some along before embarking on the hike back.
Location: The site is located High in the jungle of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park or Parc National des Volcans (PNV) in the north-western corner of the country near the borders with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo which are some 55 miles (90 km) from Rwanda’s capital city Kigali at roughly 1.470,29.484.
Access and costs: The site can only be accessed on a guided hike accompanied by a National Park rangers and guards.
Details: The Karisoke site is situated in the middle of the Volcanoes National Park; one cannot simply set off in search of it on their own. Instead one has to go through the Parks authority’s (PNV) headquarters at Kinigi.
The visitor has to be at the Park Headquarters by 7 am from where the day’s activities and groups will be processed which means that a particular group will be allocated a ranger.
Dian Fossey’s grave is nowhere near as popular, so you could end up being the only one doing it that day.
Before booking for a hike, one needs to have a jeep and driver to take you and your ranger to the end of a track from where the hike starts. However, if they have a spare seat you may be able to get a lift on one of the jeeps taking gorilla tracking groups to the Amohoro group, which lives on the same mountain side.
From the jeep drop off point a walking trail through field’s leads to the wall that marks the boundary of the National Park proper from where a rough trail leads through the jungle to the Karisoke site. Though it is a “trail”, it can be muddy strenuous.
A visitor has to be fit to do it because one will break a sweat, get very dirty and feel it in their bones afterwards.
One can hire porters to carry their stuff which will cost about 10 USD just for your own comfort, but also because this is one of the ways of feeding money into the local community around the park.
The trail leads through the jungle, with bugs, mud, slippery tree roots, stinging nettles hence one needs to come along with the appropriate equipment for the hike i.e tough hiking boots or wellies, ideally waterproof trousers, long-sleeved shirt, and gardening gloves to protect against nettles and make it easier to grab hold of branches etc. You will be lent a walking stick which is useful especially when negotiating deep muddy puddles and stuff like that. The visitor also has to take drinking water and some kind of snack too, plus a daypack rucksack for packing preferably waterproof, A rain jacket is also highly recommended as it can rain anytime.
There is also a shorter but much more strenuous way to reach the site which will mainly take you straight up the mountainside cutting (literally) through the jungle. The more roundabout trail may be longer, but much less exhaustive.
Costs: The hike costs 50 USD per person and 10 USD for a porter. Tips for the ranger are also customary.
Time required: The ascent to the site from the National Park boundary can take anything between 90 minutes to well over three hours, depending on one’s fitness and weather both during the hike as well as in the days before, as frequent heavy rains can make the trail extremely muddy. At the site you can expect to spend about half an hour to 45 minutes or so, before setting off back down again
NB: Today, Fossey is buried next to her dead gorilla friends, many of which had been killed by the very poachers that likely hunted her. After her death, memorial services were held in Washington D.C., New York, and California. The cabins in which she and her staff lived do not exist anymore except for a few bare foundations.