Dian Fossey - Short Biography

Dian Fossey in her camp at Kabara, ZaireDr. Dian Fossey’s life was marked by many challenges and successes. Fossey, whom Rwandans knew as Nyiramachabelli – "the woman who lives alone on the mountain" – is remembered throughout the world for her heroic struggle to preserve, protect and study the mountain gorilla. As founder of the Digit Fund (later renamed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International), her firm commitment to wildlife preservation, especially that of the mountain gorilla, resulted in a truly remarkable career that spanned two decades.


Early beginnings

Dian Fossey's early interest in animals and her childhood dream of becoming a veterinarian led her to San Jose State College. While in college she changed her major to occupational therapy; however, her love for animals never faltered, and she was at the same time becoming increasingly interested in Africa. In 1963, while on a six-week sabbatical in Africa, Fossey met Dr. Louis Leakey, who spoke urgently about the need for research on the great apes. Under the direction of Leakey, Fossey agreed to undertake a long-term field study of the mountain gorillas.

In 1966, Fossey won support and funding from the National Geographic Society and the Wilkie Brothers’ Foundation for a research program in the Congo (then Zaire). Due to intense political upheaval and rebellion in Zaire, Fossey left and moved to Rwanda. In 1967, she founded the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda's Parc National des Volcans, between two volcanoes: Mt. Karisimbi and Mt. Visoke.

Advancing science and gorilla conservation

For many years, Fossey conducted research from her base camp in the mountains, located approximately 10,000 feet above sea level. She struggled with fear of heights on steep slopes, and battled disease, torrential rains, poachers, witchcraft and revolution. However, her tireless efforts at gorilla habituation were rewarded when an adult male gorilla, whom she had named Peanuts, touched her hand. This gesture was the first recorded instance of peaceful gorilla-to-human contact.

Dian Fossey with Digit, her favorite gorillaFossey's intense observations and study of the mountain gorillas over thousands of hours brought new information to the scientific community. Her commitment also earned Fossey the complete trust of the wild mountain gorillas she studied. Even though she cared deeply for each gorilla, Fossey became particularly attached to a young male gorilla she named Digit. In 1977, their friendship came to a tragic halt when poachers attacked and killed the young gorilla. Fossey reacted with fury and even greater commitment. Several major publications, including National Geographic magazine, heeded her pleas for justice by running in-depth, poignant feature articles. This coverage propelled the plight of the mountain gorillas into the international limelight. It was shortly after  Digit's death that Fossey founded the Digit Fund to help raise money to protect the gorillas.

Dian Fossey’s legacy

In 1983, Fossey published Gorillas in the Mist, an account of her life and work at Karisoke™. The book became an international best seller. A movie based on the book was released in 1988. The film, starring Sigourney Weaver as Dian Fossey, achieved great popular success and helped attract public support for Fossey’s work.

Fossey was killed in 1985 in her cabin at Karisoke. The name of the Digit Fund was changed after her death to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. In subsequent years her legacy has grown through the Fossey Fund’s programs, which are dedicated to the conservation and protection of gorillas and their habitats in Africa.

For more information about Dian Fossey's life, read a slightly more in-depth biography.

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