The Other Side of Gorilla Poaching

High in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda, Dian Fossey studied the behaviors of wild mountain gorillas for nearly twenty years and enlightened the international scientific community about the social structures and habits of these apes (McPherson 2014). The film Gorillas in the Mist (Apted 1988) shows how Fossey grew close with a specific band of gorillas. Their tragic deaths at the hands of poachers enrages her. Ultimately, her fierce desire to conserve her beloved primates earns her numerous enemies. The indigenous Batwa people especially dislike Fossey’s presence because her passion to preserve the gorillas stifled their incomes from the wildlife trade (Apted 1988). In this essay, I use the narrative analysis tool presented by Iles (2010) to compare the stories of Fossey and the Batwa. This tool uses four elements to analyze narratives: knowledge and experience, motivation and emotion, interests and politics, and mental models (Iles 2010). I first examine the dominant narrative of Dian Fossey then focus on the story of the Batwa people to better understand their reasons for poaching gorillas. The analysis shows how critical examination of a counter narrative humanizes the actions of the enemy. Gorillas in the Mist (Apted 1988) shows the attachment Dian Fossey develops with the Rwandan mountain gorillas. Knowledge and experience dominate her story. As an American woman traveling to Africa to study gorillas, Fossey has specific knowledge and training when she immerses herself in the mountains to save the dwindling population of primates. Her initial desire to work with endangered gorillas and Louis Leakey demonstrates her previous conservationist education, yet her knowledge is limited because she remains ignorant of the political situations in Congo and Rwanda as she focuses only on her main goal of researching and protecting the gorillas. Her interactive experiences with the primates further compel her to fight for their survival, which influences the motivations and emotions behind Fossey’s narrative. Over time she develops a sense of attachment to both the mountain and the gorillas. She even refers to them as “my mountain” and “my gorillas” and refuses to condone any activity ranging from hunting to tourism that would affect her primate family. The primatologist’s narrow interests further shape her narrative. Focusing on research funded by the Leakey Foundation and living in the mountains allows her to study apes but also isolates her from local political and economic struggles that fill the realities of Rwandan life. She strongly demonstrates ecocentric values as she expresses a moral obligation to save the gorillas after the town official explains the monetary needs for the gorilla trade. Fossey’s mental model depends on a landscape of mountain gorillas isolated from humans. While her narrative emphasizes her passion for conservation and the ‘unjust’ killing of mountain gorillas, it fails to acknowledge external factors that influenced poaching. In the film, the Batwa are presented as ruthless, suspicious, and greedy poachers (Apted 1988), yet their history and practices create a different Batwa narrative. These native people lived and hunted in the forest for centuries, and their culture is rooted in the landscape (Survival International 2015). They were forced to relocate during the 1970s and 1980s, however, when the government designated their land a national park (Unrepresented Nations and People Organization 2008). Cultural ties to the land mold each Batwa member’s knowledge and experience of hunting gorillas. In the film, they see primates as food or income and have been culturally trained to use wildlife to subsist. While they are also connected to the mountains, their relationship with the land is one of ritual and survival rather than conservation. Ultimately, the national efforts to protect wildlife criminalized their cultural tradition of hunting gorillas (Survival International 2015). The interests and politics of the Batwa people are also critical elements in their narrative. As the Director of the Interior explains to Fossey in the film, people hunt because they need money for food, medicine, and other basic items. The Batwa’s financial interests and struggle to survive as poor conservation refugees restarting their lives in the city combined with their previous cultural knowledge pushes them into the illegal poaching industry. They later need the tourism industry Fossey opposes because, while it has displaced them from their land, it allows them to earn more legal income as national park guides (Survival International 2015). Batwa people have a different mental model about hunting because of their historical relationship with the land. Gorillas in the Mist (Apted 1988) demonizes the Batwa and their slaughtering of gorillas because it aims to illuminate the narrative of Dian Fossey, yet piecing together the cultural, political, and financial elements that create the Batwa narrative rationalizes the poachers’ actions. Assessing these two narratives highlights the one-sidedness of many conservation stories and transforms the savage hunters into humans struggling to survive.   References Apted, Michael. 1988. Gorillas in the Mist. Hollywood: Universal Studios. Iles, Alastair. 2010. “Framing Environmental Issues: The Case of the Dust Bowl.”  Lecture, Environmental Policy, Administration, and Law, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, January 25. McPherson, Angie. 2014. “Anthropologist Dian Fossey: A Storied Life With Gorillas.” National Geographic. January 18. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/01/140116-dian-fossey-google-doodle-national-geographic-gorillas-birthday/ (March 18, 2014). Survival International. 2015. “Discrimination and the ‘Pygmy’.” http://www.survivalinternational.org/material/20 (March 19, 2015). Unrepresented Nations and People Organization. 2008. “Batwa.” March 25. http://unpo.org/members/7861 (March 18, 2014).  

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