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Celebrating Two Anniversaries

September 23, 2013

Fossey Fund Celebrates Two Anniversaries

Sigourney Weaver at Karisoke, 2006This week the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the release of the hit film “Gorillas in the Mist” on Sept. 23, 1988, based on Dian Fossey’s book of the same name, as well as the 46th anniversary of the Karisoke Research Center that she founded on Sept. 24, 1967 to study and protect mountain gorillas in Rwanda.

“Dian Fossey’s legacy lives on and becomes more significant each year,” says Fossey Fund President and CEO Clare Richardson. “The mountain gorillas have doubled in number since her time, though they are still highly endangered. Much of Karisoke’s success results from the international support that followed the publication of Fossey’s book and the popularity of the movie adaptation. We are especially grateful to the celebrated actress Sigourney Weaver not only for playing the role of Fossey so well in the film but also for serving as honorary co-chair for our organization, which carries on Fossey’s work.”

The movie “Gorillas in the Mist” was released on Sept. 24, 1988 – three years after Fossey’s tragic death in 1985. Her murderer or murderers have never been identified. Before her death she had established the Digit Fund, named after a favorite silverback killed by poachers, to support armed anti-poaching patrols in the national park where the gorillas live. After she died the Fund was renamed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.

Fossey said in her book, “Little did I know then, that by setting up two small tents in the wilderness of the Virungas I had launched the beginnings of what was to become an internationally renowned research station eventually to be utilized by students and scientists from many countries.” The Fossey Fund operates Karisoke, and also studies and protects another endangered gorilla subspecies in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Karisoke is now the world leader in mountain gorilla research and protection.

According to the Moviefone movie listing and information company, the film’s producer, Anne Glimcher, had traveled to Rwanda in 1985 to meet Dian Fossey and discuss ideas for the film, but Fossey was killed hours before their scheduled meeting. Production proceeded despite the tragedy, with crews hiking long distances every day at high altitudes in temperatures below 40 degrees, carrying their gear on their backs through thick vegetation and mud. Once they arrived at the site, park regulations limited the crew to a team of five people who could film for only one hour per day.

Weaver was able to approach the gorillas by using some of the techniques Fossey had developed to habituate them to the presence of human observers, such as imitating their gestures and grunts. She wore an earpiece so the film crew could direct her without disturbing the gorillas. The scenes with injured or dying animals used actors in gorilla suits.

Weaver became comfortable with the gorillas and visited them again 20 years later for a BBC documentary, “Gorillas Revisited.” She was delighted to find some of the same gorillas she had met before. But this time, although Rwanda was still recovering from a genocide, Karisoke employed a greatly expanded staff of some 85 trackers and scientists (more than 100 today) and had moved from Fossey's original cabins – destroyed three times during the war – to houses near the park. Today, Karisoke and the Fossey Fund's Congo program administrators share a modern office building that also houses laboratories, classrooms, an exhibit hall and other facilities.