Dian Fossey

Dian Fossey – a Primate Conservationist

Dian Fossey was an American primatologist and naturalist renowned for her gorilla conservation efforts. She was born on January 16, 1932, in San Francisco, California, USA. While employed as an occupational therapist, Fossey WHO grew up with her mother and stepfather became interested in primates during a trip to Africa in 1963. Fossey studied the endangered Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda for close to 20 years before her unexplained murder happened in 1985, at the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. Fossey told her story in the book Gorillas in the Mist (1983).

Dian Fossey Early Life

With her love for animals at an early age, all the way through her youth, Fossey was a passionate horseback rider and an anticipation veterinarian. However, after joining in pre-veterinary studies at the University of California, Davis, she relocated to San Jose State College and changed her major to occupational therapy.

When she graduated from San Jose in 1954, she spent some months employed as a hospital intern in California, and then moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where she served as director of the Kosair Crippled Children’s Hospital’s occupational therapy department in 1955. Dwelling on a farm on the outskirts of Louisville, Fossey took many off-hours opportunely paying attention and caring for the livestock. But her satisfaction didn’t last long. She soon became restless and she wanted to see other areas of the world, with a keen interest in Africa.

‘Gorillas in the Mist’

In September 1963, Fossey went on her first trip to Africa that consumed her entire life savings added together with a bank loan. She visited Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and the Congo, among the many areas and soon met paleo-anthropologist Mary Leakey and her archaeologist husband Louis Leakey, one of the best-known husband-wife teams in the history of science.

Dian Fossey also met Joan and Alan Root, native wildlife photographers and were then working on a documentary of African gorillas. When the couple took her along on one of their expeditions in pursuit of primates, Fossey was suddenly captivated and later described her draw to gorillas in her 1983 autobiographical work, Gorillas in the Mist: “It was their individuality combined with the shyness of their behavior that remained the most captivating impression of this first encounter with the greatest of the great apes,” Fossey explained. “I left Kabara with reluctance, but with never a doubt that I would, somehow, return to learn more about the gorillas of the misted mountains.”

Going back to Kentucky, Fossey met up with Louis Leakey at a lecture in Louisville in 1966 who invited her to take on a long-standing learning of the endangered gorillas of the Rwandan mountain forest. For Leakey, he assumed that researching primates would significantly help the study of man’s development or human evolution. Fossey acknowledged the offer and successively came to live among the mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo up to when the civil war forced her to escape and relocate to Rwanda.

In the year 1967, Dian Fossey set up Karisoke Research Foundation in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park to assist in the study of mountain gorillas dividing her time between her fieldwork there and her Ph.D. research work at Cambridge University, where she got her degree in 1976 and later she accepted to offer her time as a visiting associate professor at Cornell University.  Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist became the best-seller at that time. A movie with the same title was also launched in 1988, featuring Sigourney Weaver as Dian Fossey.

Dian Fossey Death and Legacy

Well-thought-out to be the world’s topmost authority on the physiology and behavior of mountain gorillas, Dian Fossey struggled hard to safeguard these “gentle giants” from ecological and human threats. Fossey considered these animals as distinguished, dignified, exceedingly social creatures with specific behaviors and solid family connections. Her vigorous preservationist standpoint to save these animals from game wardens, zoo poachers and government executives who wanted to transform gorilla habitations to agricultural lands instigated her to battle for the gorillas not only through the mass media, but also by terminating poachers’ dogs and traps.

Unfortunately, on December 26, 1985, Fossey was found sliced to death, seemingly by poachers, at her Rwandan forest camp and bad enough, no attacker has ever been found or indicted in her assassination.

Currently, Fossey’s work continues through the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (previously entitled, the Digit Fund), below which the Karisoke Research Foundation remains operational, notwithstanding the challenges. After Karisoke’s original facility in Rwanda was devastated during the Rwandan civil war, its head offices were re-positioned to Musanze area. Since Dian Fossey’s death in 1985, the Fund’s activities have lengthened to embrace the conservation and protection of the Eastern Lowland Gorillas (Grauer’s) in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Mountain gorillas in that country’s Virunga National Park and other threatened species in the gorillas’ habitations or territories.