Dian Fossey’s Early Days
Dian Fossey was born in San Francisco, Calif., in 1932. She was extremely interested in animals from a very young age. At age 6, she began horseback riding lessons and in high school earned a letter on the riding team.
However, when Dian enrolled in college courses at Marin Junior College, she chose to focus on business, following the encouragement of her stepfather. On the summer break following her freshman year of college, she went to work on a ranch in Montana. At the ranch, she fell in love with and developed an attachment to the animals, and then returned to school as a pre-veterinary student at the University of California. However, she found some of the courses quite challenging, and ultimately turned her focus to obtaining a degree in occupational therapy at San Jose State College, graduating in 1954.
Following graduation, Dian interned at various hospitals in California, working with tuberculosis patients. She then moved to Louisville, Ky., serving as director of the occupational therapy department at Kosair Crippled Children Hospital. While in Kentucky she lived on a farm where the owners encouraged her to help work with the animals.
Dian often dreamed of experiencing more of the world and its abundant wildlife, and after seeing photos and hearing stories from a friend who had just traveled to Africa, Dian decided that she must travel there herself.
In 1963, Dian took out a bank loan and began planning her first trip to Africa. She hired a driver by mail and prepared to set off to the land of her dreams.
Dian Fossey Tours Africa (1963)
It took Dian Fossey’s entire life savings, in addition to the bank loan, to make her first trip to Africa a reality. This trip included visits to Kenya, Tanzania (then Tanganyika), Congo (then Zaire), and Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). John Alexander, a British hunter, served as her guide. The route he planned included Tsavo, Africa’s largest national park; the saline lake of Manyara, famous for attracting giant flocks of flamingos; and the Ngorongoro Crater, well-known for its abundant wildlife.
The final two sites on her tour were Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania — the archaeological site of Louis and Mary Leakey — and Mt. Mikeno in Congo, where in 1959 American zoologist Dr. George Schaller carried out a pioneering study of the mountain gorilla. Schaller was the first person to conduct a reliable field study of the mountain gorillas, and his efforts paved the way for the research that would become Dian Fossey’s life work.
A Turning Point: Dian Fossey Visits Dr. Louis Leakey
“I believe it was at this time the seed was planted in my head, even if unconsciously, that I would someday return to Africa to study the gorillas of the mountains.” — Gorillas in the Mist
Visiting with Dr. Louis Leakey at Olduvai Gorge was an experience that Dian would later point to as a pivotal moment in her life. During their visit, Leakey talked to Dian about Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees in Tanzania, which at the time was only in its third year. He also shared with her his belief in the importance of long-term field studies with the great apes.
Leakey gave Dian permission to have a look around some newly excavated sites while she was at Olduvai. Unfortunately, in her excitement, she slipped down a steep slope, fell onto a recently excavated dig and broke her ankle. The impending climb that would take Dian to the mountain gorillas was at risk, but she would not be discouraged so easily. By her own account, after her fall, she was more resolved than ever to get to the gorillas.
When she arrived in Congo, Dian met with Joan and Alan Root, wildlife photographers who were collecting footage of the mountain gorillas for a photographic documentary. The Roots allowed Dian to camp behind their cabin in the Virunga mountains and, after a few days, took her into the forest to search for gorillas. When they did come upon a group of gorillas and Dian was able to observe and photograph them, she developed a firm resolve to come back and study these beautiful creatures, as she describes in Gorillas in the Mist:
“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.”
Dian Fossey Sets Off to Study the Mountain Gorillas
Once back in Kentucky, Dian continued her work at Kosair Children’s Hospital and also found time to publish a number of articles and photographs from her Africa trip. These would serve her well in the spring of 1966, when a lecture tour brought Dr. Louis Leakey to Louisville. Dian joined the crowd and waited in line to speak with Leakey. When her turn came, she showed him some of her published articles.
This got his attention and during the conversation that followed, Leakey spoke to Dian about heading a long-term field project to study the gorillas in Africa. Leakey informed Dian that if she were to follow through, she would first have to have her appendix removed. Perhaps it was a sign of her strong will that she proceeded to do exactly that, only to later hear from Leakey that his suggestion was mainly his way of gauging her determination!
It was eight months before Leakey was able to secure the funding for the study. Dian used that time to finish paying off her initial trip to Africa and to study. She focused on a “Teach Yourself Swahili” grammar book and George Schaller’s books about his own field studies with the mountain gorillas.
From left: Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall and Birute Galdikas all studied great apes in the wild.
In December 1966, Dian was again on her way to Africa. She arrived in Nairobi, acquired the necessary provisions and set off for the Congo in an old canvas-topped Land Rover named “Lily,” that Dr. Leakey had purchased for her. On the way, Dian made a stop to visit the Gombe Stream Research Centre to meet Jane Goodall and observe her research methods with chimpanzees.
Kabara: Beginnings (1966/1967)
Once Dian arrived back in Africa in 1966, Alan Root accompanied her from Kenya to the Congo and was instrumental in helping her obtain the permits she needed to work in the Virungas. He helped her recruit two African men who would stay and work with her at camp, as well as porters to carry her belongings and gear to the Kabara meadow. Root also helped her set up camp and gave her a brief introduction to gorilla tracking. It was only when he left, and after two days at Kabara, that Dian realized just how alone she was. Soon, however, tracking the mountain gorillas would become her single focus, to the exclusion even of simple camp chores.
On her first day of trekking, after only a 10-minute walk, Dian was rewarded with the sight of a lone male gorilla sunning himself. The startled gorilla retreated into the vegetation as she approached, but Dian was encouraged by the encounter. Shortly thereafter, Sanwekwe, an experienced gorilla tracker who had worked with Joan and Alan Root in 1963, joined Dian, and the prospects for more sightings improved.
Slowly, Dian settled into life at Kabara. Space was limited. Her 7-by-10-foot tent served as bedroom, bath, office and clothes-drying area (an effort that often seemed futile in the wet climate of the rainforest). Meals were prepared in a run-down wooden building and rarely included local fruits and vegetables, other than potatoes. Dian’s mainstay was tinned food and potatoes cooked in every way imaginable. Once a month, she would hike down the mountain to her Land Rover, “Lily,” and make the two-hour drive to the village of Kikumba to restock the pantry.
Sanwekwe proved invaluable as a tracker and taught Dian much of what she came to know about tracking. With his help and considerable patience, she eventually identified three gorilla groups in her area of study along the slopes of Mt. Mikeno.
“The Kabara groups taught me much regarding gorilla behavior. From them I learned to accept the animals on their own terms and never to push them beyond the varying levels of tolerance they were willing to give. Any observer is an intruder in the domain of a wild animal and must remember that the rights of that animal supersede human interests.” — Gorillas in the Mist
Initially, the gorillas would flee into the vegetation as soon as Dian approached. Observing them openly and from a distance, over time she gained their acceptance. She put the gorillas at ease by imitating their regular activities, like scratching and feeding, and copying their contentment vocalizations.
Through her observations, she began to identify the individuals that made up each group. Like George Schaller before her, Dian relied heavily on the gorillas’ individual “noseprints” – the patterns of wrinkles on their noses – for purposes of identification, since they are unique to each gorilla. She sketched the gorillas and their noseprints from a distance and slowly came to recognize individuals within the three distinct groups in her study area. She learned much from their behavior and kept detailed records of their daily encounters.
Escape from Congo
Dian Fossey worked tirelessly every day until the political situation in Congo worsened. On July 9, 1967, she and Sanwekwe returned to camp to find armed soldiers waiting for them. There was a rebellion in the Kivu Province and the soldiers had come to escort her down the mountain to safety.
Dian spent two weeks in Rumangabo under military guard until, on July 26, she was able to orchestrate a way out. She offered the guards cash if they would take her to Kisoro, Uganda, to register “Lily” properly and then bring her back. The guards could not resist and agreed to provide an escort. Once in Kisoro, Dian went straight to the Travellers Rest Hotel and the Ugandan military were called. The soldiers from Congo were arrested, and Dian was safe.
In Kisoro, Dian was interrogated and warned not to return to Congo. After more questioning in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, she finally flew back to Nairobi where she met with Dr. Leakey for the first time in seven months. There they decided, against the advice of the U.S. Embassy, that Dian would continue her work, but this time on the Rwandan side of the Virunga mountains.
Dian Fossey Begins Research in Rwanda
“More than a decade later as I now sit writing these words at camp, the same stretch of alpine meadow is visible from my desk window. The sense of exhilaration I felt when viewing the heartland of the Virungas for the first time from those distant heights is as vivid now as though it had occurred only a short time ago. I have made my home among the mountain gorillas.” — Gorillas in the Mist
Much of Dian Fossey’s success in the study of mountain gorillas came from the help of people she met along the way. This would prove true once again as she moved her focus to Volcanoes National Park on the Rwandan side of the Virungas. In Rwanda, Dian met a woman named Rosamond Carr, who had lived in Rwanda for some years and was familiar with the country.
Carr introduced Dian to a Belgian woman, Alyette DeMunck, who was born in the Kivu Province and lived in the Congo from an early age, remaining there with her husband until the political situation forced them to move to Rwanda.
Alyette DeMunck knew a great deal about Rwanda and its people. She offered to help Dian find an appropriate site for her new camp and renewed study of the mountain gorillas of the Virungas. At first, Dian was disappointed to find the slopes of Mt. Karisimbi crowded with herds of cattle and frequent signs of poachers. She was rewarded, however, when after nearly two weeks she reached the alpine meadow of Karisimbi, where she had a view of the entire Virunga chain of extinct volcanoes.
So it was, on Sept. 24, 1967, that Dian Fossey established what she named the Karisoke Research Center — “Kari” for the first four letters of Mt. Karisimbi that overlooked her camp from the south and “soke” for the last four letters of Mt. Bisoke, the slopes of which rose to the north, directly behind camp.
“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.” — Gorillas in the Mist
Dian Fossey’s Work Gets Underway
Dian faced a number of challenges while setting up her research site. Upon the departure of her friend Alyette, she was left with no interpreter. Dian spoke Swahili and the Rwandan men she had hired spoke only Kinyarwanda. Slowly, and with the aid of hand gestures and facial expressions, they learned to communicate.
A second and very significant challenge was that of gaining “acceptance” among the gorillas in the area, so that meaningful research could be done in close proximity to them. This would require that the gorillas overcome their shy nature and natural fear of humans.
George Schaller’s earlier work served as a basis for the techniques Dian would use to habituate the gorillas to her presence. Schaller laid out suggestions in his book, The Mountain Gorilla, which Fossey had used to guide herself through the process of successfully habituating gorillas while she was in the Kabara region.
Now, at Karisoke, Dian continued to rely on Schaller’s work and the guidelines he set forth. She also came to depend on the gorillas’ natural curiosity in the habituation process. While walking or standing upright increased their apprehension, she was able to get quite close when she “knuckle-walked.” She would also chew on celery when she was near the groups, to draw them even closer to her. Through this process, she partially habituated four groups of gorillas in 1968.
It was also in 1968 that the National Geographic Society sent photographer Bob Campbell to photograph her work. Initially, Dian saw his presence as an intrusion, but they would eventually become close friends. His photographs of Fossey among the mountain gorillas launched her into instant celebrity, forever changing the image of the gorillas from dangerous beasts to gentle beings and drawing attention to their plight.
Gaining Scientific Credentials
Dian Fossey never felt entirely up to the scientific aspects of studying the mountain gorillas because she did not have, in her view, adequate academic qualifications. To rectify this, she enrolled in the department of animal behavior at Darwin College, Cambridge, in 1970. There, she studied under Dr. Robert Hinde, who had also been Jane Goodall’s supervisor. She traveled between Cambridge and Africa until 1974, when she completed her Ph.D.
Armed with the degree, she believed that she could be taken more seriously. It also enhanced her ability to continue her work, command respect, and most importantly, secure more funding.
Protecting the Gorillas
Even as Dian celebrated her daily achievements in collecting data and gaining acceptance among both the mountain gorillas and the world at large, she became increasingly aware of the threats the gorillas faced from poachers and cattle herders. Although gorillas were not usually the targets, they became ensnared in traps intended for other animals, particularly antelope or buffalo.
Dian fought poachers and encroachment by herds of cattle through some unorthodox methods: wearing masks to scare poachers, burning snares, spray-painting cattle to discourage herders from bringing them into the park, and, on occasion, taking on poachers directly, forcing confrontation.
She referred to her tactics as “active conservation,” convinced that without immediate and decisive action, other long-term conservation goals would be useless as there would eventually be nothing left to save.
These tactics were not popular among locals, who lived in poverty and were struggling to meet their basic needs for food, water and other necessities. Additionally, the park guards were not equipped to enforce the laws protecting the forest and its inhabitants.
As a last resort, Dian used her own funds to help purchase boots, uniforms, food and provide additional wages to encourage park wardens to be more active in enforcing anti-poaching laws. These efforts spawned the first anti-poaching patrols, whose job was to protect the gorillas in the research area.
Dian Fossey and Digit
In the course of her years of research, Dian developed close attachments to many of the gorillas she studied. However, there was one gorilla with whom she formed a particularly close bond. Named Digit, he was about 5 years old and living in her study Group 4 when she encountered him in 1967. He had a damaged finger on his right hand (hence, the name) and no playmates his age in his group. He was curious and drawn to her and she came to consider him a close friend.
Tragically, on Dec. 31, 1977, Digit was killed by poachers. He died helping to defend his group, which enabled them to escape safely. He was stabbed multiple times and his head and hands were severed. Eventually, there would be more deaths, including that of the dominant silverback Uncle Bert, and Group 4 would disband. It was then that Dian Fossey became desperate to stop the killings.
Digit had been part of a famous photo shoot with Bob Campbell and, as a result, had served as the official representative of the park’s mountain gorillas, appearing on posters and in travel bureaus throughout the world. Dian decided to use Digit’s celebrity and his tragic death to gain attention and support for gorilla conservation. She established the Digit Fund to raise money for her “active conservation” and anti-poaching initiatives. The Digit Fund would later be renamed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.
Dian Fossey’s Death (1985)
Dian had not been back in Rwanda long when, a few weeks before her 54th birthday, she was murdered. Her body was found in her cabin on the morning of Dec. 27, 1985. She had been struck twice on the head and face with a machete. There was evidence of forced entry but no signs that robbery had been the motive.
Theories about Dian Fossey’s murder are varied but have never been fully resolved. She was laid to rest in the graveyard behind her cabin at Karisoke, among her gorilla friends and next to her beloved Digit.
“When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate on the preservation of the future.” — Gorillas in the Mist