Dian Fossey: Gorilla Savior Remembered on Birthday

Dian Fossey, Ph.D. would have reached her 82nd birthday on Jan, 16, 2014. Though she was killed trying to save her beloved mountain gorillas on Dec. 26, 1985, it is heartening to remember how much she was able to accomplish and how her work has endured.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, which was founded originally by Dian Fossey (and then called the ” Digit Fund”) today continues Fossey’s commitment to daily gorilla protection and has expanded her mission to include studying other species that share the gorillas’ ecosystem and to working with communities that neighbor gorilla habitats.

“Among all researchers who have worked in the African field, I consider myself one of the most fortunate because of the privilege of having been able to study the mountain gorilla,” wrote Fossey in the preface to her book, Gorillas in the Mist. “I deeply hope that I have done justice to the memories and observations accumulated over my years of research on what I consider to be the greatest of the great apes.”

Fossey developed a love for animals at an early age. She joined her high school horseback riding team, worked on a ranch, and even considered becoming a veterinarian. Instead, she earned a degree in occupational therapy and worked at a hospital in Kentucky, where she lived on a farm and helped the owners with animal care. A friend’s visit to Africa inspired her to dream of visiting that continent some day – a dream she pursued with determination until the opportunity finally arose. After taking out a bank loan to supplement her savings, she set off for Africa in 1963.

During this first trip to Africa, where she visited several countries, she met with the great paleontologist Louis Leakey, Ph.D., at his archeological site in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Leakey told Fossey about Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees, and the importance of long-term field studies of great apes. Then, as it is for so many, her first sight of mountain gorillas turned into a life-changing experience, sealing her determination to return to study them.

Three years later, Fossey set up camp on the Congo side of the Virungas and began to study the gorillas, until a civil war forced her to leave. Refusing to give up her dream, she started over on the Rwanda side, founding the Karisoke Research Center in 1967 and later the Digit Fund (which is now the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.) In the 1970s, she spent four years traveling between Africa and Cambridge University to earn her Ph.D., and toward the end of her life finished what would become a best-selling book (and then a movie), Gorillas in the Mist.

Today, some 30 years after Dr. Fossey wrote those words, there is no question that her work has made all the difference toward the continuing survival of the mountain gorilla. Fossey worried that mountain gorillas might not live to see the end of the last century. Thanks to the work Fossey started, which has been carried on through the intensive conservation methods used by the Fossey Fund today, they have survived and increased in number. This year, Dr. Fossey’s birthday received a commemoration from Google in the form of a Google Doodle, a special variation on the Google logo where it appears on their main search page. People from around the world were reminded of the life and legacy of Dian Fossey, a remarkable gift in memory of her birthday. But if Fossey were still alive today, we believe that the best birthday present possible would be the knowledge of the mountain gorillas’ survival.