Dian Fossey

Dian Fossey (January 16, 1932- December 27, 1985) was a well-known American Zoologist that was best known for her extensive study of gorillas that took about 18 years to complete. What was so fascinating about Dian Fossey was that she had no problem going out of her comfort zone and moving Rwanda where she would study the gorillas in their rainforest habitat. She was encouraged the famous anthropologist Louis Leakey to work in Rwanda and this was where she spent most of her time doing her work. She was murdered in 1985 and until today her murder remains an open case.

She was known as one of the foremost primatologists back when she was still alive and she helped for the group called “Leakey’s Angels: which unsurprisingly, also counted Jane Goodall and Birute Galdikas as the other two members. Fossey focused on gorillas, Goodall fixated on the chimpanzees, and Birute specialized in orangutans and it was Leakey who sent them out to study these great apes in their natural habitats.


The early life and education background of Dian Fossey

Dian Fossey was well-known as a primatologist and as a naturalist and she developed a love for animals at a very young age. She was born in January 16, 1932 in San Francisco CA, where she grew up with her mom and her step-dad. Throughout her young life, she was a great horse-woman and dreamed of one day becoming a veterinarian. She enrolled in the University of California to study pre-veterinary medicine courses and while she was a very good student, base science subjects like chemistry and physics weren’t really her cup of tea. She later moved to San Diego state where she majored in occupational therapy instead.

After she graduated from her occupational therapy course in 1953, she spent several months as a hospital intern in California but made the move to Louisville in Kentucky where served as the director of the occupational therapy department at the Kosair Crippled Children’s hospital, this was in 1955. She lived on a farm located in the outskirts of the city and this is where she spent a lot of her down time tending to farm animals but her happiness didn’t last because she eventually became restless and yearned to see what the world had to offer and this is when she set her sights on seeing Africa.

Trip to Africa

But in September 1963, Fossey finally made her way to Africa. She spent her entire life-savings for the trip and even took out an $8000 bank loan which was sizeable at that time. She made her way to Kenya, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and the Congo but she also saw lots of other places on her trip. It was only a matter of time before she met up with Mary Leakey and her husband Louis Leakey- they were both archaeologists and one of the most famous husband-and-wide teams in scientific history.

She also met up with wildlife photographers Joan and Alan Root who were busy with a documentary on gorillas in Africa. It was this couple who brought her along to one of their trips to look for the gorillas and this was when Fossey fell in love with the great apes which she talks about at great length in her autobiography.

The start of her career

she went back home to Kentucky with great reluctance but it was also when she met up with Louis Leakey once more and it was he who suggested that just like Jane Goodall and her chimps in Tanzania, she too could undertake a long-term study of the gorillas in Rwanda. She studied Swahili and undertook an auditing class on the subject of primatology as she waited the 8 months it would take for her funding and her visa to be ready and in December 1966, she finally arrived at Nairobi.

She took time to acquire a vehicle she named “Lily” and even took a trip to the Gombe Stream Research Center to meet up with Jane Goodall and see first-hand how she interacted with her subjects. Alan Root helped her obtain her permits to work in the Virunga Mountains and how to track gorillas. It was all uphill from there. In the early 1967s, Dian Fossey began her 18-year long field study of the apes in the Congo. She lived in tents and existed canned food; once a month, she would trek down the mountain to where her jeep was and go on a two hour drive to restock in the village of Kikumba.

Dian Fossey’s work in Africa

On the year 1967, she spearheaded the founding of the Karisoke Research Center which was a rather remote camp nestled in the rainforest found in the Ruhengeri province. It took quite a whole for her to get to know the gorillas in this new area because they had never before been studied and only looked at men as poachers. Not only did she have to content with the remote location but she also had to deal with research students that left due to the fact they could not handle the extreme coldness and darkness of the camp.

She was vehemently opposed to poaching and while it was an outlawed activity in Rwanda, it was a law that was interpreted very loosely. Not only did she work to prevent the poaching of gorillas that were to be exported to zoos but she also cared for injured and sick primates should they come to her attention. Aside from her opposition to poaching, she was also against the idea of tourists coming to see the primates since they were susceptible to human diseases. These days, her foundation acknowledges responsible tourism and even promotes it as a good way to help the preservation of her beloved gorillas.

Her autobiography and legacy

Dian Fossey was found hacked to death on December 1985 and though no one has been convicted, the finger points to poachers as the culprits. Her autobiography Gorillas in the Mist became a best seller though and was later turned into a movie. Her foundation lives in and has even extended operations to help gorillas in other African states.