Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dian Fossey Life and Death

Death of Digit

Fossey established a gorilla graveyard at Karisoke for apes killed by poachers. Despite her efforts and those of the government patrols, carcasses turned up from time to time, and the graveyard grew — each plot marked by a stubby pole topped with a board on which Fossey painted the name she had given the animal.

On Jan. 1, 1978, an assistant found the corpse of Fossey's beloved Digit, by then a young silverback, ten-years-old. His head, heart and hands and feet had been removed. A dead dog found at the site — apparently killed by Digit before he was himself speared to death — was identified as belonging to Munyarukiko, the infamous poacher.

The seminal event prompted Fossey to change the focus of her work. She essentially abandoned academic research in favor of gorilla advocacy — what she came to call "active conservation." She founded the Digit Fund to pay for her work.

Fossey offered a cash bounty on Digit's killers and threatened the government with an anti-tourism poster featuring photos of the ape's mutilated corpse above the slogan, "Come Visit Me in Rwanda." She ordered her student researchers to begin carrying guns.

Not long after the killing, her African employees captured a local tribesman who admitted that Munyarukiko's clan was responsible — although Fossey acknowledged that she and her men had hogtied the man and "examined him very, very, very thoroughly."

The tribesman said Munyarukiko had been paid the equivalent of $20 for Digit's body parts.

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