Happy birthday, Dian Fossey (Jan. 16)

January 15, 2013

Happy birthday, Dian Fossey (Jan. 16)

Dian Fossey observing gorilla behaviorJanuary 16, 2013, would have been Dr. Dian Fossey’s 81st birthday. The anniversary of her untimely death on Dec. 26, 1985, occurred only a few weeks earlier, so it is heartening at the start of a new year to remember how much she was able to accomplish.

Fossey developed a love for animals at an early age. She joined her high school horseback riding team, worked on a ranch in Montana one summer, 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 Dr. Louis Leakey at his archeological site in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Leakey told Dian about Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees, and the importance of long-term field studies of great apes. Later, in Uganda, a hotel owner who was an advocate for gorilla conservation recommended that she contact Joan and Alan Root, who were photographing the mountain gorillas for a documentary. The Roots allowed Dian to camp behind their cabin and took her into the forest to search for gorillas. As it is for so many, her first sight of mountain gorillas was a life-changing experience for Fossey, sealing her determination to return to study them.

“It was their individuality combined with the shyness of their behavior that remained the most captivating impression of this first encounter with the greatest of the great apes. I left Kabara with reluctance but with never a doubt that I would, somehow, return to learn more about the gorillas of the misted mountains,” Fossey wrote in Gorillas in the Mist.

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 and later the Digit Fund, which is now the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. 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.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund continues her work of daily gorilla protection and study – now in the Congo as well – and has expanded its mission to include studying other species that share the gorillas’ ecosystem and working with communities that neighbor gorilla habitats. But it all started decades ago when a remarkable California woman dreamed of Africa. We are proud to honor her memory every day.

Help us honor Dian Fossey’s memory by supporting our daily monitoring and protection of gorillas in Rwanda and the Congo. Take action – donate.