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In her words: From Dian Fossey’s gorilla journals

Dian Fossey began her pioneering studies and protection of Rwanda’s mountain gorillas in 1967, and was killed in her cabin on Dec. 26, 1985. From her first days attempting to find and closely observe the gorillas until her last days in the forest, she took detailed notes on every aspect of their daily lives, helping the world to understand these “gentle giants” and leaving us a wonderful legacy.

“I shall never forget my first encounter with gorillas. Sound preceded sight. Odor preceded sound in the form of an overwhelming, musky-barnyard, humanlike scent. The air was suddenly rent by a high-pitched series of screams followed by the rhythmic rondo of sharp pok-pok chestbeats from a great silverbacked male….”  Dian Fossey, “Gorillas in the Mist,” 1983.

Here are a few excerpts from Dian’s extensive journals, about some of the gorillas she observed during her first years of study, from Peanuts, who was the first gorilla to make contact with her, to Uncle Bert whom she named in honor of her uncle. Today, Fossey Fund field staff protect roughly half of the gorilla families in Rwanda, and still record detailed observations daily, adding to an enormous database of information that is now one of the longest-running and largest on any wild animal species.

Uncle Bert [silverback]:

“He has perhaps the most human face I’ve yet seen in a gorilla, and reminds me exactly of my uncle Bert, so from now on he is named ‘Uncle Bert.’ He appears to be the oldest gorilla I’ve yet seen although his white hair does not continue down his flanks and arms…. He has a very ‘hang-dog’ expression as he sits down, picks a leaf, holds it in his right hand for a moment, drops it between his legs and stands to chest-beat – this elicited by the hoot-barks of the original silverback who has a vague knowledge of my presence. November 1967

Uncle Bert

Tiger [infant]:

“I’ve never seen an infant quite like this one, whose name from now on is Tiger. It’s a light reddish-brown color all over with extremely long and wooly head hair that makes its head all out of proportion to its body which seems thin and spindly. May 1968


Icarus [juvenile]:

“… too comical to watch with a straight face. His little, wizened elf-like face with its big ears set up high on each side of his head tops off his big tubby round body from which extend spindley little legs and arms which seem out of all proportion to the rest of him. September 1968


Samson [blackback]:

“Samson has been sitting looking directly ahead of him patting his feet up and down on the tree trunk exactly as a human would pat their feet when impatient, and suddenly he’s up for another chestbeat and this brings Peanuts running up to the base of the tree trunk to see what’s happening. Samson stands for his chest beat with his mouth in a partial hoot position but nothing comes out except bellowed air…. He starts down the tree slowly then, but pauses mid-way to urinate and defecate which should be falling on Peanuts as the latter hasn’t moved….

Peanuts then comes up on the trail only to turn around on the high side of it, give a chest beat, a jump across the trail and a tumble into the foliage…. He really seems to enjoy an audience and to show off.”  April 1968

Peanuts [blackback]:

“He got directly, directly below me until his nose was about 8” from my boot and he looked up at me with a very pleasant expression, then took a step to the side so that the bulk of him was hidden by the trunk in front of me. Right in the beginning he’d seen my French book which dropped to the ground as I was trying to get things out of their reach. This was his aim when he moved to hide behind the tree trunk. He then reached down and picked up the book with one hand and slowly flipped the pages with one finger of his other hand – by chance it was right side up…. When finished with the book he retreated fast some 4 or 5 ‘ and gave some foliage whacks and runs back and forth….” January 1969


By this time in her studies, it was clear that Dian was successfully habituating many of the gorillas to her presence in the forest and thus was able to see and write about them as fascinating, curious and caring individuals. The thousands of words she carefully recorded in her journals would eventually help bring us inside the world of the gorillas and showcase their unique personalities and social lives. 

“The first occasion when I felt I might have crossed an intangible barrier between human and ape occurred about ten months after beginning the research at Karisoke. Peanuts, Group 8’s youngest male, was feeding about fifteen feet way when he suddenly stopped and turned to stare directly at me. The expression in his eyes was unfathomable. Spellbound, I returned his gaze – a gaze that seemed to combine elements of inquiry and acceptance…. Two years after our exchange of glances, Peanuts became the first gorilla ever to touch me….

Dian Fossey, “Gorillas in the Mist.”