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Lecture Notes: life among the Karisoke gorillas

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David Watts isn't in the movie Gorillas in the Mist. But if they ever make a sequel, here's how the first scene might look:

It's only a couple of days after Christmas in 1985. The telephone rings at an office on the campus of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where David Watts is a research affiliate. Watts is told of the murder of famed primatologist Dian Fossey. His face is without expression as the voice on the other end of the phone offers him a job to replace Fossey as director of the Karisoke Research Centre.

Next scene: The top of a mountain in Rwanda, West Africa. The camera zooms in through the maze of jungle foliage on Watts, who greets old Rwandan friends with hugs.

Watts stayed on as Karisoke's director through December 1987. But unlike Fossey, he never intended to spend a lifetime. "It was more than even a passion with Dian; she voluntarily isolated herself from the world," says Watts of his former boss. He worked for Fossey on two separate stints, from early in 1978 to late in 1979 and for another year and a half starting in 1984. "She deliberately chose to avoid civilization as much as possible. She preferred gorillas to people, but she knew she could never really be accepted as another gorilla. She lived in a strange sort of limbo."

Watts says that he quit running Karisoke for the same reasons most people wouldn't want to go there in the first place. "As much as I care about the future of gorillas, human beings are social animals too. I'm not sure that kind of long-term isolation is a good idea. After all, I missed going to movies on Friday nights."

Today, Watts is a visiting professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. He'll be speaking on April 24 at First Chicago Center at a fundraiser presented by the Lincoln Park Zoo Auxiliary Board. "I go out on the stump to educate people about more than gorillas. The other wildlife at Karisoke and the people of Rwanda are also a part of the story."

Now, Watts, at age 37, has the itch to return to Karisoke, at least for a couple of years. The current director will leave when his contract runs out December 1.

"Deliberate gorilla poaching is way down because the market is disappearing or it has completely dried up," says Watts. Still, gorillas are being caught in traps meant for other animals. Last August, even veterinary help couldn't save a gorilla whose wrist was caught in a trap. "Our number-one priority will always be to protect the gorillas," he says. "But now, we're looking at long-term goals. The hope is to expand the scope of research to learn more about the dynamics of the entire ecosystem. Here's the truth: at this moment tourism is saving the gorillas. But we need to reinforce the government's commitment in other ways. Long-term park-management plans need to be instituted."

Since 1980, the number of mountain gorillas in west central Africa has increased from about 200 to 300 individuals. That's still far too few. An outbreak of disease could wipe out the entire population.

Watts was a 26-year-old grad student at the University of Chicago when he first met Fossey. After returning from studying capuchin monkeys in Panama, he heard about a research opening with Fossey in Rwanda. "I wrote Dian," recalls Watts, "and she wrote back, 'If you can pay your way, it's OK with me.'"

Watts went to Africa as a strict, let's-do-it-by-the-book academician. He was always taught that field researchers must remain neutral objects. "The problem is that gorillas haven't read the books on the subject. Whether a gorilla threatens or nuzzles up next to you, you're forced to react."

At first, the gorillas gave Watts the cold shoulder. But one afternoon an adolescent female named Augustus moseyed over to Watts while most of the other members of her family were taking a siesta. Augustus placed her elbow across Watts's thigh, then placed her head in his lap and stared up into his eyes. "My gosh, this animal wasn't simply being curious, it was exhibiting friendly behavior. I felt like she was saying, 'You may not be as good as the other gorillas, but you're not so bad, and I like you.'"

Scientists aren't supposed to attribute human feelings to animals, but it's a challenge to avoid that temptation when you're working with great apes. "It's not that they're as complicated we are," says Watts. "But it's incredibly close."

Watts came back to the States to continue his schooling, and then returned to Karisoke just over four years later. By now Fossey's health had deterioriated to such a degree that she could rarely go out to be with the gorillas she loved so dearly. Toward the end of the film Gorillas in the Mist, Sigourney Weaver's Fossey becomes maniacal. And according to Watts, that's an accurate portrayal of her last years.

"She especially mistreated Rwandans," says Watts. "That's why I quit [in August of 1985]. I couldn't stand to see her insult these people any longer."

Only four months after Watts's departure, Fossey was murdered. Her murder is still a mystery. Watts says that he suspects that she simply insulted one too many Rwandans. "It's very sad; she died such a bitter woman."

Watts is quick to credit Fossey for compiling ground-breaking scientific data on our cousins. She singlehandedly began to tear down the gorillas' King Kong image. And ultimately, she may have saved an entire species.

Still, she clearly made mistakes. And the soft-spoken Watts was careful not to repeat them when he took over as director.

Before she died, Fossey had sold the movie rights to her story. But Watts was in charge when the movie crew arrived to make the motion picture.

"I thought this big Hollywood company would show up with some crazy man trying to direct gorillas," says Watts. "I was dreading the entire ordeal. But my fears weren't warranted."

Watts credits wildlife photographer Simon Trevor, who lives in Tsavo National Park in Kenya. Watts became the liaison between the filmmakers and the gorillas.

Though Trevor was in charge of the film crew and director Michael Apted in charge of Weaver and the other actors, the gorillas were in charge of the action. Viv, a 450-pound male silverback, decided to assert his authority early on. While the rest of Viv's group nonchalantly rested and grazed, the silverback made a few gestures and then charged Weaver.

"When Sigourney cowered for the cameras, I can assure you it wasn't acting," says Watts. "Viv ended up right next to her, inches away. I don't blame Sigourney for being scared. That is the proper, the only possible response. Still, I must say that I was enjoying one of those silent, inward laughs. I knew that Viv was simply making a social statement of sorts. It's his way of saying, 'I'm calling the shots here.'"

Overall, Watts liked the film, and he thinks that if Fossey were alive she'd have liked it too.

Watts expects to hear any day now whether he'll get to return to Karisoke. He says that he misses Rwandan friends and the gorillas, and even his own recipe for vegetable goulash he dubs "the Karisoke grunge." In the meantime, Watts is catching as many movies as he can. He knows what he'll be missing when he's back in Karisoke.

Watts's Monday lecture starts at 7 PM--there's a reception at 6--at First Chicago Center, Dearborn and Madison streets. Tickets are $15, $12.50 for zoo members. Reservations are recommended; call 935-6700.

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