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Published: July 2008

A Grim Struggle for Survival

Digit Stare Gorilla

The Imperiled Mountain Gorilla

(Originally published in the April 1981 issue of National Geographic)

By Dian Fossey
Photograph by Dian Fossey

It was Digit, and he was gone. The mutilated body, head and hands hacked off for grisly trophies, lay limp in the brush like a bloody sack.

Ian Redmond and a native tracker took the initial shock. They stumbled on the spear-stabbed and mangled body at the end of a line of snares set by antelope poachers. Stunned with grief and horror, Ian composed himself and set out to find me in another part of the forest. An outstanding student helper, he shared my aim to balance research with the goal of saving the imperiled mountain gorillas that I was studying from my base camp in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda, in central Africa.

For me, this killing was probably the saddest event in all my years of sharing the daily lives of mountain gorillas, now diminished to only about 220 individuals—a reduction by half in just 20 years. Digit was a favorite among the habituated gorillas I was studying: In fact, I was unashamed to call him "my beloved Digit."

And now, through our sorrow, anger welled up—rage against the poachers who had committed this slaughter. Yet poaching is only one of many pressures—human encroachment, land clearing, illicit collecting, tourist presence—that have brought the mountain gorilla to the edge of extinction.

Digit's sad end in 1977 was sheer tragedy, yet in the course of my research, such devastating events have been balanced by many rewarding beginnings in the enlargement of our understanding of these animals.

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