anthropologist, primatologist, ethologist, zoologist, conservationist
Dian Fossey was born on January 16, 1932 in San Francisco, California. Her strong interest in animals led her to study pre-Vet in college but she switched majors and ended up getting a degree in Occupational Therapy from San Jose State University. She found a job at a children’s hospital in Kentucky and seemed to be able to communicate with the disabled children in ways others could not. However, Dian wanted to see more of the world and in 1963 she made a 6-week trip to Africa at Olduvai Gorge, where she met the anthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey. He discussed with her the importance of doing research on great apes. This meeting inspired her to study mountain gorillas. Dian was one of “Leakey’s Angels” (or “Trimates”), who were encouraged to study primate behavior by Leakey. The other two being Jane Goodall who studied chimpanzees and Biruté Galdikas who studied orangutans.
By 1966, Dian persuaded Dr. Leakey to let her do research on mountain gorillas and she secured financial support from the National Geographic Society. She began her research in Congo but political upheaval forced her to moved to Rwanda. In 1967, she founded the Karisoke Research Center, a remote rainforest camp in the Virunga Mountains in Rwanda. Her original objectives were to apply field primatology methods to the study of gorillas in order to understand their behavior, ecology, and social organization. In order to achieve this, she had to recognize individuals, which required the gorillas to be habituated (to get used to the presence of humans), which had never been attempted with gorillas. By imitating gorilla behaviors and vocalizations, Fossey began to gain the gorillas’ trust, and gradually the gorillas accepted her. In 1970, her efforts were finally rewarded when Peanuts, an adult male gorilla, touched her hand. This was the first friendly gorilla to human contact ever recorded.
Dian’s unique relationship with gorillas and her background as an occupational therapist brushed away the myth of an agressive, savage beast. Intense observation over thousands of hours enabled Dr. Fossey to earn the complete trust of the wild groups she studied and brought forth new knowledge concerning many previously unknown aspects of gorilla behavior. One particular gorilla, a young male she named “Digit”, she became especially attached to. In 1977, she witnessed Digit defending his family against six poachers and their dogs. The poachers killed Digit and Dian was deeply affected. She reacted by waging a public campaign against gorilla poaching and contributions poured in from around the world, allowing Dr. Fossey to establish the Digit Fund (renamed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in 1992) and dedicate the rest of her life to the protection of the gorillas.
Dian received her Ph.D. in Zoology from the University of Cambridge in 1976 and later accepted a position at Cornell University that allowed her to finish her book Gorillas in the Mist. Its publication made her internationally known and brought much needed attention to the plight of the endangered mountain gorillas.
Dian supported “active conservation” vs. “theoretical conservation”, in which she supported anti-poaching patrols and preserving natural habitats instead of promoting tourism. She was also strongly opposed to zoos because the capture of wild animals often led to the deaths of its family members and the captured animals often do not survive the transport. Dian was known as “Nyiramachabelli” to the natives, which means “the lonesome woman of the woods”. She was described by some as “eccentric and obsessed” in her methods of protecting the gorillas. She strongly opposed them being exploited as a tourist attraction and had no problem confronting poachers.
Dr. Fossey was murdered in her cabin at Karisoke on December 26, 1985. Her death is a mystery still unsolved, although many people speculate it was the work of poachers. The last entry in her diary reads: “When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate on the preservation of the future.”
Dian Fossey is buried in Rwanda next to her beloved gorillas who were killed by poachers.
On her grave marker it reads:
No one loved gorillas more.
Rest in peace, dear friend.
in this sacred ground.
For you are home
where you belong.