Dian Fossey


Dian Fossey (January 16, 1932 – December 26, 1985) was an American zoologist who undertook an extensive study of gorilla groups over a period of 18 years. She studied them daily in the mountain forests of Rwanda, initially encouraged to work there by famous anthropoloqist Louis Leakey. She was murdered in 1985, by unknown assailants; the case remains open.


Called one of the foremost primatologists in the world while she was alive, Fossey, along with Jane Goodall and Birute Galdikas, was part of the so-called Leakey’ Angels, a group of three prominent researchers on primates (Fossey on Gorillas; Goodall on Chimpanzees; and Galdikas on Orangutans) sent by archaeologist Louis Leakey to study great apes in their natural environments.


Scientific achievements


Fossey made discoveries about gorillas including how females transfer from group to group, how a raiding silverback will sometimes kill the infants of a raided group so the mothers can have his children, and how gorillas recycle nutrients. Fossey's research was funded by the Wilkie Foundation and the Leakey Foundation, with primary funding from the National eograpic Society.


 When her photograph, taken by Bob Campbell, appeared on the cover of National Geographic Magazine in January 1970, Fossey became an international celebrity, bringing massive publicity to her cause of saving the mountain gorilla from extinction, as well as convincing the general public that gorillas are not as fierce as they are sometimes depicted in movies and books. Photographs showing the gorilla "Peanuts" touching Fossey's hand depicted the first recorded peaceful contact between a human being and a wild gorilla. Her extraordinary rapport with animals and her background as an occupational therapist brushed away the Hollywood "King Kong" myth of an aggressive, savage beast.


Cornell University and autobiography


By 1980, Fossey was recognised as the world's leading authority on the physiology and behaviour of mountain gorillas, defining gorillas as being "dignified, highly social, gentle giants, with individual personalities, and strong family relationships."


Fossey lectured as professor at Cornell University in 1981-1983. Her bestselling book Gorillas in the Mist  was praised by Nikolaas Tinbergen, the Dutch ethologist and ornithologist who won the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physology or Medicine. Her book remains the best-selling book about gorillas.


Opposition to poaching


While poaching had been illegal in the national park of theVirunga Volcanoes in Rwanda since the 1920s, the law was rarely enforced by park conservators, who were often bribed by poachers and paid a salary less than Fossey's own African staff. On three occasions, Fossey wrote that she witnessed the aftermath of the capture of infant gorillas at the behest of the park conservators for zoos; since gorillas will fight to the death to protect their young, the kidnappings would often result in up to 10 adult gorillas' deaths.

In 1978, Fossey attempted to prevent the export of two young gorillas, Coco and Pucker, from Rwanda to the zoo in Cologne, Germany. During the capture of the infants at the behest of the Cologne Zoo and Rwandan park conservator, 20 adult gorillas had been killed. The infant gorillas were given to Fossey by the park conservator of the Virunga Volcanoes for treatment of injuries suffered during their capture and captivity. With considerable effort, she restored them to some approximation of health. Over Fossey's objections, the gorillas were shipped to Cologne, where they lived nine years in captivity, both dying in the same month. She viewed the holding of animals in "prison" (zoos) for the entertainment of people as unethical.

While gorillas from fringe groups on the mountains that were not part of Fossey's study had often been found poached five to ten at a time, and had spurred Fossey to conduct her own anti-poaching patrols, Fossey's study groups had not been direct victims of poaching until Fossey's favored gorilla Digit was killed in 1978. Later that year, the silverback of Digit's Group 4, named for Fossey's Uncle Bert, was shot in the heart while trying to save his daughter, Kweli, from being seized by poachers cooperating with the Rwandan park conservator. Kweli's mother, Macho, was also killed in the raid, but Kweli was not captured due to Uncle Bert's intervention; however, three-year-old Kweli died slowly and painfully of gangrene, from being brushed by a poacher's bullet.

According to Fossey's letters, ORTPN (the Rwandan national park system), the World Wildlife Found, African Wildlife Foundation, Fauna Preservation Society, the Mountain Gorilla Project and some of her former students tried to wrest control of the Karisoke research center from her for the purpose of tourism, by portraying her as unstable. In her last two years, Fossey claims not to have lost any gorillas to poachers; however, the Mountain Gorilla Project, which was supposed to patrol the Mount Sabyinyo area, tried to cover up gorilla deaths caused by poaching and diseases transmitted through tourists. Nevertheless, these organizations received most of the public donations directed towards gorilla conservation. The public often believed their money would go to Fossey, who was struggling to finance her anti-poaching patrols, while organizations collecting in her name put it into tourism projects and as she put it "to pay the airfare of so-called conservationists who will never go on anti-poaching patrols in their life." Fossey described the differing two philosophies as her own "active conservation" or the international conservation groups' "theoretical conservation."

Through the Digit Fund, Fossey financed patrols to destroy poachers' traps in the Karisoke study area. In four months in 1979, the Fossey patrol consisting of four African staffers destroyed 987 poachers' traps in the research area's vicinity. The official Rwandan national park guards, consisting of 24 staffers, did not eradicate any poachers' traps during the same period. In the eastern portion of the park not patrolled by Fossey, poachers virtually eradicated all the park's elephants for ivory and killed approximately a dozen gorillas. Up to that point, seven of the Karisoke study gorillas had been killed by poaching.


Opposition to tourism


Dian Fossey strongly opposed tourism, as gorillas are very susceptible to diseases by humans like the flu for which they have no immunity. Dian Fossey reported several cases in which gorillas died because of diseases spread by tourists. She also viewed tourism as an interference into their natural wild behaviour. Fossey also criticized tourist programs, often paid for by international conservation organizations, for interfering with both her research and the peace of the mountain gorillas' habitat.


Preservation of habitat


Fossey is responsible for the revision of a European Community project that converted parkland into Pyrethrum farms. Thanks to her efforts, the park boundary was lowered from the 3,000-meter line to the 2,500-meter line.


Digit Fund


Sometime during the day on New Years Eve 1977, Fossey's favourite gorilla, Digit, was killed by poachers. As the sentry of study group 4, he defended the group against six poachers and their dogs, who ran across the gorilla study group while checking antelope traplines. Digit took five spear wounds in ferocious self-defense and managed to kill one of the poachers' dogs, allowing the other 13 members of his group to escape. Digit was decapitated, and his hands cut off for an ashtray, for the price of $20. After his mutilated body was discovered by research assistant Ian Redmond, Fossey's group captured one of the killers. He revealed the names of his five accomplices, three of whom were later imprisoned.


Fossey subsequently created the Digit Fund (now the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International in the USA and the Gorilla Organization in the UK) to raise money for anti-poaching patrols. In addition, a consortium of international gorilla funds arose to accept donations in light of Digit's death and increased attention on poaching. Fossey mostly opposed the efforts of the international organizations, which she felt inefficiently directed their funds towards more equipment for Rwandan park officials, some of whom were alleged to have ordered some of the gorilla poachings in the first place. Digit's death had a profound effect on her approach to conservation, and she commented that "I have tried not to allow myself to think of Digit's anguish, pain and the total comprehension he must have suffered in knowing what humans were doing to him. From that moment on, I came to live within an insulated part of myself."

The deaths of some of her most studied gorillas caused Fossey to devote more of her attention to preventing poaching and less on scientific publishing and research. Fossey became more intense in protecting the gorillas and began to employ more direct tactics: she and her staff cut animal traps almost as soon as they were set; frightened, captured and humiliated the poachers; held their cattle for ransom; burned their hunting camps and even mats from their houses. Fossey also constantly challenged the local officials to enforce the law and assist her.




Dian Fossey was born in San Francisco, California to George and Kitty Fossey. Her father was a US Navy sailor. Her parents divorced when Dian was aged 6. Her mother remarried the following year, to businessman Richard Price. Her father tried to keep in contact, but her mother discouraged it and all contact was subsequently lost. At age six she began horseback riding, earning a letter from her school; by her graduation in 1954, Fossey had established herself as an equestrian.




Educated at Lowell High School, following the guidance of her stepfather she enrolled in a business course at the College of Marin. However, a summer on a ranch in Montana at age 19 rekindled her love of animals, and she enrolled in a pre-veterenary course in biology at the University of California. She supported herself by working as a clerk at White Front (a department store), doing other clerking and laboratory work, and working as a machinist in a factory. Although Fossey had always been an exemplary student, she had difficulties with base sciences including chemistry and physics, and failed her second year of the program. She transferred to San osé State College to study occupational Therapy, receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1954. Initially following her college major, Fossey began a career in occupational therapie. She interned at various hospitals in California and worked with tuberculosis patients. After less than a year, she moved to Louisville, Kentucky. Living a few miles south of the town on Judge George Long's estate off of Bardstown Road in the servants' quarters, she eventually became director of the occupational therapy department at Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville.

Fossey received her PhD in 1976 from Darwin College, University of Cambridge, for a thesis entitled "The Behavior of the Mountain Gorilla." Between 1981 and 1983, Fossey lectured as a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.


Interest in Africa


Fossey became friends with Mary White "Gaynee" Henry, secretary to the chief administrator at the hospital and wife of one of the doctors, Michael J. Henry. Fossey turned down an offer to join the couple on an African tour due to lack of finances, but in 1963 she borrowed $8,000 (one year's salary), and went on a seven-week visit to Africa.


In September 1963, she arrived in Nairobi, Kenya. Whilst there, she met actor William Holden, owner of Treetops Hotel who introduced her to her safari guide, John Alexander. Alexander became her guide for the next seven weeks through Kenya, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe. Alexander's route included visits to Tsavo, Africa’s largest national park, the saline lake of Manyara, famous for attracting giant flocks of flamingos, and the Nqorongoro Crater, well-known for its abundant wildlife. The final two sites for her visit were Olduvau Gorge in Tanzania (the archeological site of Louis and Mary Leakey); and Mt. Mikeno in Congo, where in 1959, American zoologist George Schaller had carried out a yearlong pioneering study of the mountain gorilla. At Olduvai Gorge, Fossey met Leakey and his wife while they were examining the area for hominid fossils. Leakey talked to Fossey about the work of Jane Goodall and the importance of long-term research of the great apes. Although she had broken her ankle while visiting the Leakeys, by October 16, Fossey was staying in Walter Baumgartel's small hotel in Uganda, the Travellers Rest. Baumgartel, an advocate of gorilla conservation, was among the first to see the benefits that tourism could bring to the area, and he introduced Fossey to Kenyan wildlife photographers Joan and Alan Root. The couple agreed to allow Fossey and Alexander to camp behind their own camp, and it was during these few days that Fossey first encountered wild mountain gorillas. After staying with friends in Rhodesia, Fossey returned home to Louisville to repay her loans. She published three articles in courier-Journal newspaper, detailing her visit to Africa.


Personal life


During her African safari, Fossey met Alexie Forrester, the brother of an African she had been dating in Louisville; Fossey and Forrester later became engaged. Referring to leaving for her research study in 1966, in later interviews Fossey would comment that "I left my appendix and fiancé in the states."


Fossey then became involved with National Geographic photographer Bob Campbell after a year of working together at Karisoke, with Campbell promising to leave his wife. Eventually the pair grew apart through her dedication to the gorillas and Karisoke, along with his need to work further afield and his marriage.] In 1970, during her time in Cambridge to get her Ph.D., she discovered she was pregnant and got an abortion, later commenting that "you can't be a cover girl for National Geographic Magazine and be pregnant."

Fossey had other relationships throughout the years and a love for children.

Since Fossey would rescue any abused or abandoned animal she saw in Africa or near Karisoke, she acquired a menagerie in the camp, including a monkey who lived in her cabin, Kima, and a dog, Cindy. Fossey held Christmas parties every year for her researchers, staffers, and their families, and she developed a genuine friendship with Jane Goodall.


Fossey had been plagued by lung problems from an early age, and later in her life, Fossey suffered from advanced emphysema brought on by years of heavy cigarette smoking As the debilitating disease progressed— further aggravated by the high mountain altitude and damp climate— Fossey found it increasingly harder to conduct meaningful field research, frequently suffering from shortness of breath and requiring the help of an oxygen tank when climbing or hiking long distances.




Fossey was found murdered by poachers in the bedroom of her cabin in Virunga Mountains, Rwanda on December 27, 1985. The last entry in her diary read:

 “When your realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate on the preservation of the future.”

Fossey's skull had been split by a panga (Machete), a tool widely used by poachers, which she had confiscated years earlier and hung as a decoration on the wall of her living room adjacent to her bedroom. Fossey was found dead beside her bed, with her gun beside her, but the ammunition didn't fit the weapon. The cabin showed signs of a struggle as there was broken glass on the floor and tables along with other furniture overturned. All Fossey's valuables were still in the cabin - thousands of dollars in cash, travelers' checks, and photo equipment remained untouched. She was 2 metres (6.6 ft) away from a hole cut in the wall of the cabin on the day of her murder.

Fossey is interred at Karisoke, in a site that she herself had constructed for her dead gorilla friends. She was buried in the gorilla graveyard next to Digit, and near many gorillas killed by poachers. Memorial services were also held in New York, Washington, and California.

 Fossey's will stated that all her money (including proceeds from the film of Gorillas in the Mist) should go to the Digit Fund to finance anti-poaching patrols. However, her mother Kitty Price challenged the will and won.


Research at Karisoke


When Leakey made an appearance in Louisville while on a nationwide lecture tour, Fossey took the color supplements that had appeared about her African trip in The Courier-Journal to show to Leakey, who remembered her and her interest in mountain gorillas. Three years after the original safari, Leakey suggested that Fossey could undertake a long-term study of the gorillas in the same manner as Jane Goodall had with chimpanzees in Tanzania.

After studying Swahili and auditing a class on primatology during the eight months it took to get her visa and funding agreed, Fossey arrived in Nairobi in December 1966. With the help of Joan Root and Leakey, Fossey acquired the necessary provisions and an old canvas-topped Land Rover which she named “Lily.” On the way to the Congo, Fossey visited the Gombe Stream Research Centre  to meet Goodall and observe her research methods with chimpanzees. Accompanied by photographer Alan Root, who helped her obtained work permits for the Virunga Mountains, Fossey began her field study at Kabara, in the Congo in early 1967, in the same meadow where Schaller had made his camp seven years earlier.  Root taught her basic gorilla tracking, and his tracker Sanwekwe later helped in Fossey's camp. Living in tents on mainly tinned produce, once a month Fossey would hike down the mountain to “Lily” and make the two-hour drive to the village of Kikumba to restock.

Fossey identified three distinct groups in her study area, but couldn't get close to them. She eventually found that mimicking their actions and making grunting sounds assured them, together with submissive behaviour and eating of the local celery plant. She later attributed her success with habituating gorillas to her experience working as an occupational therapist with autistic children. Like George Schaller, Fossey relied greatly on individual “noseprints” for identification, initially via sketching and later by camera.

Fossey had arrived in the Congo in locally turbulent times. Known as the Belgian Congo until its independence in June 1960, unrest and rebellion plagued the new government until 1965, when Lieutenant General Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, by then commander-in-chief of the national army, seized control of the country and declared himself president for five years during what is now called the Congo Crisis. With During the political upheaval, a rebellion and battles took place in the Kivu Province. On July 9, 1967, soldiers arrived at the camp to escort Fossey and her research workers down, and she was interned at Rumangabo for two weeks. Fossey eventually escaped through bribery to Walter Baumgärtel's Travellers Rest Hotel in Kisoro, where her escort was arrested by the Ugandan military. Advised by the Ugandan authorities not to return to Congo, after meeting Leakey in Nairobi, Fossey agreed with him against US Embassy advice to restart her study on the Rwandan side of the Virungas. In Rwanda, Fossey had met local American expatriate Rosamond Carr, who introduced her to Belgian local Alyette DeMunck; DeMunck had a local's knowledge of Rwanda and offered to find Fossey a suitable site for study.

On September 24, 1967, Fossey founded the Karisoke Research Center, a remote rainforest camp nestled in Ruhengeri province in the saddle of two volcanoes. For the research center's name, Fossey used “Kari” for the first four letters of Mt. Karisimbi that overlooked her camp from the south, and “soke” for the last four letters of Mt. Visoke, the slopes of which rose to the north, directly behind camp. Established 3,000 metres (9,800 ft) up Mount Visoke, the defined study area covered 25 square kilometres (9.7 sq mi). She became known by locals as Nyirmachabelli, roughly translated as "The woman who lives alone on the mountain."

Unlike the gorillas from the Congo side of the Virungas, the Karisoke area gorillas had never been partially habituated by Schaller's study; they knew humans only as poachers, and it took longer for Fossey to be able to study the Karisoke gorillas at a close distance.

Many research students left after not being able to handle the cold, dark, and extremely muddy conditions around Karisoke on the slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes, where paths usually have to be cut through six-foot-tall grass with a machete.


Opponents and theories on murder


After Fossey's death, her entire staff, including Rwelekana, a tracker she had fired months before, were arrested. All but Rwelekana, who was later found dead in prison, supposedly having hanged himself, were released.

On the night of Fossey's murder, a metal sheeting from her bedroom was removed at the only place of the bedroom where it would not have been obstructed by her furniture, which supports the case that the murder was committed by someone who was familiar with the cabin and her day-to-day activities. The sheeting of her cabin, which was normally securely locked at night, might also have been removed after the murder to make it appear as if the killing was the work of poachers.

Farley Mowats's biography of Fossey, Woman in the Mists, suggests that it is unlikely that she was killed by poachers. According to Mowat, it is unlikely that a stranger could have entered her cabin by cutting a hole and then going to her living-room to get the panga, giving Fossey time to escape; the amount of untouched valuables also makes it unlikely the act of a poor poacher. According to the book, poachers would have been more likely to kill her in the forest, with little risk to themselves. Mowat hence believes that she was killed by those who viewed her as an impediment to the touristic and financial exploitation of the gorillas.

Fossey was portrayed by her detractors as eccentric and obsessed, and all kinds of stories circulated about her. According to Linda Melvern in her book Conspiracy to Murder, Protais Ziqiranyirazo, Préfet of Ruhengeri, animal trader and Rwanda's ex-president's brother-in-law, could also have been "implicated in the murder of Dian Fossey in 1985." Quoting Nick Gordon, author of a book about Fossey's death, "Another reason why she might have been murdered is that she knew too much about the illegal trafficking by Rwanda's ruling clique." Protais Zigiranyirazo also had strong financial interests in gorilla tourism.

Many of the organizations that opposed Fossey, including ORTPN (the Rwandan tourism office) and other wildlife organizations, used and continue to use her name for their financial gain up to this day. Weeks before her death, ORTPN refused to renew her visa, and pressure on Fossey was mounting. However, Fossey managed to obtain a special two-year visa through Augustin Nduwayezu, a benevolent Secretary-General in charge of immigration. Mowat believes that the extension of her visa amounted to a de facto death warrant.

Months before her death, Fossey signed a $1,000,000 contract with UniversalStudios for a movie that was to be based on her book, Gorillas in the Mist. The prospect that her work would be funded far into the future may have contributed to her demise.

The director of ORTPN, Habirameye, who refused to renew Fossey's last visa request, insisted at the filming of Gorillas in the Mist that there should be as little about the death scene as possible.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2002 Tunku Varadarajan described Fossey at the end of her life as colourful, controversial, and "a racist alcoholic who regarded her gorillas as better than the African people who lived around them."

However, Farley Mowat's book, Woman in the Mists, dismisses these allegations as "sick fantasies" by her detractors. In his book, Mowat writes that during her South African lecture tour, Fossey was so critical of apartheid that she was banned from South Africa. Mowat also asserts that the testimony of those closest to her and her doctors shows she was not an alcoholic.




After her death, Fossey's Digit Fund in the U.S. was renamed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. The Karisoke Research Center is operated by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, and continues the daily gorilla monitoring and protection that she started.

One of Fossey's friends, Shirley McGreal, continues to work for the protection of primates through the work of her International Primate Protection Leage (IPPL) one of the few wildlife organizations that according to Fossey effectively promotes "active conservation".

Between Fossey's death until the 1994 Rwanda genocide, Karisoke was directed by former students some of whom had opposed her. During the genocide and subsequent period of insecurity, the camp was completely looted and destroyed. Today only remnants remain of her cabin. During the civil war the Virunga parks were filled with refugees and illegal logging destroyed vast areas.

Today, the Rwandan people have realized the importance of the mountain gorillas and their natural habitat. They have adapted the traditional household baby naming ceremony Kwita Izina - into the Baby Gorilla Naming Ceremony in which each baby gorilla is given a name by invited guests and celebrities at an annual, internationally famous event under the patronage of the President.