Today, the “doodle” on Google’s website—the artistic rendition of the company’s logo—is dedicated to the late gorilla advocate, Dian Fossey. Honoring Fossey, however, is an odd choice for Google, a company that takes great pride in doing good and whose motto for a long time was “Don’t be Evil.”
While Fossey loved gorillas, she had a much dimmer view of people, especially the poor, rural Rwandans who lived adjacent to the sanctuary where she worked. In her zeal to protect the gorillas and their habitat from farmers and poachers, Fossey was more cruel oppressor than compassionate conservationist.
Following the 1977 killing of one of “her” favorite gorillas—as she regarded the animals she anthropomorphized—Fossey became increasingly paranoid and aggressive, and she began to drink heavily. She regarded all Rwandans as corrupt and contemptible, referring to them by the racist term “wogs.”
Fossey’s efforts to protect her gorillas were violent and even sadistic. “Fossey had shot at her enemies, kidnapped their children, whipped them about the genitals, smeared them with ape dung, killed their cattle, burned their property, discredited their work, and sent them to jail,” according to an excerpt of the book, The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey. She was murdered in 1985, hacked to death while she slept in her house at the gorilla preserve. The killer or killers were never found, but by that point she had so many enemies that the list of people who hated her was very long, as documented in a story in Vanity Fair.
By honoring Fossey, Google is unfortunately and no-doubt unintentionally paying homage to a highly regressive approach to wildlife conservation that began with colonialism and which seeks to erect barriers between people and wildlife, including disenfranchising the rural poor who bear the brunt of living with wildlife that often poses threats to them and their livelihoods. It’s hard to feel warm and fuzzy about gorillas if some of your farm land has been taken to be part of a national park. And it’s hard to like elephants when they kill fellow villagers and destroy the crops that will feed your family and hopefully be used to purchase luxuries such as shoes.
Fortunately, not all wildlife conservationists are stuck in a colonial time warp in which Dian Fossey is a hero. In the late 1960s, around the time Fossey was embarking on her misanthropic efforts to help gorillas, a number of southern African countries—led by what would become Zimbabwe and Namibia—turned 180 degrees away from the colonial model by creating property rights to wildlife. These countries reasoned that unless the people who bore the costs of living with wildlife benefitted financially from conserving it, they would kill the wildlife and replace it with crops and cattle.
This more inclusive and enlightened approach to conservation has been highly successful, with numbers of elephants, rhinos and other indicator species increasing dramatically in Southern Africa (with the exception of Zimbabwe, where political oppression has taken a terrible toll on both humans and wildlife), while numbers in East Africa – which has clung on to the oppressive colonial model advocated by Fossey – have fallen.