Dian Fossey in November 1985; photograph by Yann Arthus-Bertrand.
On this date, Dian Fossey, an American primatologist who for years made a daily study of the mountain forest gorillas of Rwanda, central Africa, was born in San Francisco, California. Her strong interest in animals led her to enter college as a pre-veterinary student. However, she soon switched to occupational therapy and obtained her degree from San Jose State College in 1954.
But Fossey dreamed of seeing more of the world and its abundant wildlife. Therefore, in 1963, she took out a bank loan and began planning her first trip to Africa. Her trip included visits to Kenya, Tanzania (then Tanganyika), Congo (then Zaire), and Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia).
An experience that Fossey would later point to as a pivotal moment in her life was her visit to Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. There, she met Dr. Louis Leakey, who encouraged her initial interest in gorillas.
I believe it was at this time the seed was planted in my head, even if unconsciously, that I would someday return to Africa to study the gorillas of the mountains.
Upon arriving home in Kentucky Fossey returned to work as an occupational therapist to repay the loan she had taken to pay for her trip to Africa … all the while dreaming of the day she would return.
There was no way that I could explain to dogs, friends, or parents my compelling need to return to Africa to launch a long-term study of the gorillas. Some may call it destiny and others may call it dismaying. I call the sudden turn of events in my life fortuitous.
In December 1966, Fossey was again on her way to Africa. She arrived in Nairobi, acquired the necessary provisions, and set off for the Congo. On the way, she made a stop to visit the Gombe Stream Research Centre to meet Jane Goodall and observe her research methods with chimpanzees. Eventually, Fossey moved her focus to Volcanoes National Park on the Rwandan side of the Virungas. On 24 Sept. 1967, she established and then directed the Karisoke™ Research Centre in Rwanda.
Little did I know then that by setting up two small tents in the wilderness of the Virungas I had launched the beginnings of what was to become an internationally renowned research station eventually to be utilized by students and scientists from many countries.
Dian Fossey with two juvenile gorillas in Rwanda sometime between 1968 and 1970 (photo credit: National Geographic photographer Bob Campbell).
Living a solitary life for many years, Fossey observed the gorillas’ habits and gradually gained their acceptance. In 1970, she enrolled in the department of animal behavior at Darwin College, Cambridge, under Dr. Robert Hinde, who had also been Jane Goodall’s supervisor. She traveled between Cambridge and Africa until 1974, when she completed her Ph.D. Armed with the degree, she now felt that she could be taken more seriously. This also enhanced her ability to continue her work, command respect, and most importantly, secure more funding.
In 1980, Fossey moved to Ithaca, New York, as a visiting associate professor at Cornell University. She used the time away from Karisoke™ to focus on the manuscript for her book, Gorillas in the Mist. Published in 1983, the book is an account of her years in the rainforest with the mountain gorillas. Most importantly, it underscores the need for concerted conservation efforts. Praised by Nikolaas Tinbergen, the Dutch ethologist and ornithologist who won the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the book was well received and remains popular to this day.
Fossey was brutally murdered in 1985, her attacker or attackers splitting her skull with a machete, the type commonly used by poachers. She was found in the bedroom of her cabin at Karisoke™ and had apparently tried to load her pistol during the attack. To this day her killer or killers have not been found.
There are de-classified diplomatic cables from Fossey’s time which indicate outright collusion between Melvin Payne, then President of the National Geographic Society, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, and Rwandan Ambassador Frank Crigler to remove Fossey from Rwanda. A smear campaign was underway to discredit her so that money-making “conservation” schemes could be implemented by the African Wildlife Fund (AWLF) and the colonialist Mountain Gorilla Project.
Also, diplomatic cables and writing from that time indicate that higher ups realized Protais Zigiranyirazo, governor of Ruhengeri Province in Rwanda when Fossey worked there, was a likely suspect in Fossey’s murder. He was involved in illegal trading in endangered species and gold smuggling out of Congo, and there is much additional evidence in the historical record that Fossey was about to expose him when she was killed. Zigiranyirazo is now living in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast.
Fossey was laid to rest in the graveyard behind her cabin, among her gorilla friends. The last entry in her diary read:
When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate on the preservation of the future.
As Fossey’s legacy is reflected upon, it is clear that she significantly contributed both to science and conservation. Primatology benefited from her ability to endure many years of fieldwork and in turn reveal new knowledge concerning gorilla behavior, while primate conservation gained great momentum from the combination of Fossey’s bravery and ability to attract and hold the public’s attention.
- Dian Fossey, Gorillas in the Mist (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983).
- “Fossey, Dian.” Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 2008. Retrieved January 20, 2012 from Encyclopedia.com.
- “Dian Fossey murdered in Rwanda.” The CBC Digital Archives Website. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Last updated: March 25, 2009. [Page consulted on Jan. 20, 2012.]
- Farley Mowat, Woman in the Mists: The Story of Dian Fossey and the Mountain Gorillas of Africa (New York, NY: Warner Books, 1987).
- Georgianne Nienaber, Gorilla Dreams: The Legacy of Dian Fossey (Iuniverse.Com, 2006).
- —————— “Fox-Owned National Geographic Uses Gorillas as Cover for Exploitation of Congo” Huffington Post online, posted 15 July 2008, accessed 20 January 2012.