Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dian Fossey Life and Death

Exile from Africa

Fossey lost her most ardent and influential supporter when Louis Leakey died in 1972.

She found herself isolated as complaints about her activism began to pile up.

Rwandans viewed her as the ungrateful guest who wouldn't leave. Ambassador Crigler, the National Geographic Society and even the Leakey Foundation lost confidence in her. The conventional wisdom was that Fossey had gone "bushy." Fossey had her own phrase for it: "astronaut blues."

In any case, everyone but the researcher seemed to believe it was time for her to leave Karisoke.

By February 1979, the National Geographic and the Leakey Foundation were threatening to pull funding unless Fossey left for "an extended leave" by that May.

Melvin Payne, president of National Geographic, sent her a telegram announcing that Fossey's behavior had become an "embarrassment" to the society.

"URGENT REPEAT URGENT REPEAT URGENT PLACE YOURSELF IN AMBASSADOR CRIGLER'S HANDS AND BE GUIDED TOTALLY BY HIS ADVICE AND COUNSEL STOP ESSENTIAL YOU ATTACH GREATEST IMPORTANCE TO THIS REQUEST FOR CONTINUANCE FUTURE GEOGRAPHIC RELATIONS..."

Meanwhile, the "Fossey problem" was migrating upward through the American government.

Cyrus Vance
Cyrus Vance

Secretary of State Cyrus Vance exchanged a series of cables about Fossey with Crigler and Payne, according to author Mowat. In one, Vance wrote, "Dr. Payne and NG (National Geographic) Research Committee believe it necessary that Dr. Fossey leave Rwanda for a while. This would help defuse local tensions."

Instead of folding to the pressure, Fossey dug in. She refused to consider a long-term leave from Rwanda, even after National Geographic dangled a $35,000, three-year grant for Fossey to her edit field notes — in the United States.

Instead, she devised a plan to take a leave on her own terms, and in March 1980 she finally left Karisoke for an appointment as a visiting professor at Cornell University in upstate New York. She used her time there to polish her memoirs and to regain her health, decimated by sciatica, chronic respiratory distress and back pain.

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