WOMAN IN THE MISTS

The Story of Dian Fossey

And the Mountain Gorillas

Of Africa

By Farley Mowat

Warner Books. 380 pp. 19.95

DIAN FOSSEY went to Africa to study the endangered mountain gorillas of Rwanda, but she ended her life trying to save them.

The battle she waged along the way -- against poachers, local cattle herders, Rwandan bureaucrats, tourists, rival conservation groups, and anyone else who threatened the gorillas or their dwindling domain -- earned her a reputation as the irascible hellcat of Rwanda's Parc National Des Volcans. When she was murdered in 1985, hacked to death two days after Christmas at her remote mountain research camp, those who knew her best could only marvel that it hadn't happened sooner.

Woman in the Mists, Farley Mowat's life of the late American primatologist, is rich with anecdotes that show Fossey in all her grit and glory. What it does less well is make sense of the controversy that surrounded her.

Though it was a dilemma she herself chose to ignore, Fossey embodied the problem of Western conservationists in less developed countries: How does one go about protecting endangered animals and lands on continents where most people don't have enough to eat?

Forced to choose between the needs of people and the survival of a threatened gorilla population, Fossey chose gorillas every time. Twenty years earlier, of course, her high-wire conservation act -- organizing armed anti-poaching patrols, engaging in shouting matches with Rwandan officials, browbeating her camp staff -- would have been tolerated if not applauded.

By 1980, however, it had fallen permanently out of favor. In Woman in the Mists, Mowat gives a picture of Fossey that is tender and true, but he doesn't adequately explain that shift in consciousness.

On the face of it, Mowat, the prolific Canadian writer and naturalist, would seem the ideal man for the task. His uncompromising views on the exploitation of land and beast are familiar from more than two dozen books, including Never Cry Wolf and A Whale for the Killing. Mowat clearly felt a great sympathy with Fossey. In his author's note he writes that during the project she became as "achingly" familiar to him "as if we were of one blood." That may have been part of the problem.

He confesses that his initial jubilation at having Fossey's journals and papers soon turned to unease. "In truth," he allows, "I began to feel like an intruder." His solution was to abandon the biographer's role as "recorder and commentator," and function instead as a kind of "editorial collaborator."

Now it's the reader's turn to feel uneasy. A good biographer is much more than a recorder and commentator, and reading Mowat's demurral is a little like being abandoned by Kit Carson at the head of the Oregon Trail.

He thanks his editor for rescuing the book after he had become so "embroiled in Dian's life that I thought myself lost forever." The production schedule required to research, write and edit a major biography in the space of 21 months couldn't have helped. Most of the reporting for the book apparently was done by a research assistant, and though Mowat offers an intriguing and credible solution to the mystery of Fossey's unsolved murder, there is little else that is genuinely new here. And the book seems hastily written. On at least two occasions, he reproduces lengthy newspaper articles where his own words would have done better.

STILL, ALL is not lost. Mowat has made judicious use of Fossey's journals. She was an engaging writer with a fine, wry sense of humor. He lets her story unfold in a leisurely way and he puts to rest -- forever one hopes -- the shopworn notion of Fossey as a misanthrope who preferred animals to her own species. Although she could be as irritable as a wet cat, she also was capable of great kindness and compassion.

And contradiction. She set her own broken bones on more than one occasion, and regularly plunged into the forest in pursuit of heavily armed poachers, but she was too tenderhearted to butcher the chickens she'd brought to camp for that purpose. She made pets of them instead. She had an independent streak a mile wide, but she struggled with loneliness and insecurity her whole life and longed, if her journals are to be believed, for marriage or an approximation thereof.

It's pleasantly startling to learn that she had a brief affair with Louis Leakey several years after she first barged uninvited into his camp at Kenya's Olduvai Gorge. The patriarch of paleoanthropology was in his early seventies by then, but he pursued her ardently, with passionate letters and a ruby ring that she accepted reluctantly after making it clear that she did not wish to continue the liaison.

There were other affairs as well -- a wildlife photographer, an American scientist, a French doctor. But when they ended, as they inevitably did, it was with a disastrous effect on her equilibrium. "I am so old and wrinkled and ugly, it is alarming," she wrote despairingly in her journal. "I am trying to begin to look decent . . . but what's the use."

The intelligence, gentleness and zeal that Fossey posessed are all on display here. But so are Mowat's prejudices -- his loathing of bureaucrats, governmental or environmental, and his romantic nature. Fossey's foes, the conservationists, government officials and graduate students who disagreed with her, come off as knaves or fools. Mowat never really gets around to a clear-eyed evaluation of Fossey's scientific contributions or her conservation efforts. By failing to do so, he leaves a thin veil of romance over a life strong enough to stand unadorned.

Mary Battiata is a staff writer in the Style section of The Washington Post.