Dian Fossey, born in 1932, was an American primatologist who embarked on the study of mountain gorillas for a period of over 18 years up until her murder in 1985. Dian Fossey’s love for animals started way back in her childhood when at the age of 6 she started horseback riding. Having initially enrolled at college to do a business course with the guidance of her wealthy stepfather, Dian Fossey changed to pre-veterinary after working in a ranch where she grew to love animals even more. She changed courses again and opted to take up a degree in occupational therapy at the San Jose State College from which she graduated in 1954.
During her work with the children in Kentucky, she lived in a cottage in a farm whose owners encouraged her to help out with the animals. This fostered her love for animals further and dreamed of seeing more out there in the world. When she saw pictures that a friend of hers shared from her recent African trip, Dian Fossey resolved to travel to Africa herself someday. This saw her take up a bank loan that facilitated her African safari and had her touring the African states of Kenya, Tanzania, Congo, and Zimbabwe with a British hunter as her guide. Her visit to Mount Mikeno in the Congo where she was able to first encounter the mountain gorillas and her visit to Dr. Louis Leakey at the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania were her turning points in life as she made a resolve to return to Africa to study the mountain gorillas- “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.” – quoted from “Gorillas in the Mist”.
When she did eventually return to Africa in December 1966, she first set up base in the Congo and started her study of the gorillas. After a couple of months, the political situation worsened in the Congo and one day when she was returning from meeting the gorillas, she found rebels waiting for her in her cabin to “escort” her down the mountain. When she did get an opportunity to leave them (she deceived them that she needed to register her car in Uganda) and when they took her to Uganda, she informed the Ugandan military that arrested the rebels and she was able to leave for Rwanda.
Dian Fossey turned to do her research of the mountain gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park of Rwanda. She set her base in between Mount Karisimbi and Mount Bisoke in the year 1967, from where she named her research center, the Karisoke Research Centre. Unlike the gorillas of the Congo, the Rwanda gorillas were highly poached making them fearful of humans. Dian Fossey started her habituation of the Rwanda mountain gorillas from scratch. Given the shyness of gorillas, she needed to first gain acceptance from them. She realized that while walking on fours (knuckle-walking), she would get closer to them than when she walked while upright, and her chewing celery when with the gorillas made them come even closer. With this technique, she was able to partially habituate four gorilla groups by 1968. When a National Geographic Society photographer took pictures of Dian with the mountain gorillas in the wild, they got published and they changed the image of gorillas to people who thought them dangerous.
Dian Fossey’s first reason to come to Africa was to study the gorillas, but with time she realized that they needed protection from not only the habitat encroachers but the poachers who killed so many animals. Whereas the gorillas may not have been the main target of poaching, they got into snares set up for other animals and got either killed or badly injured. Dian to fight of the poachers and cattle herders who kept on encroaching on the habitat of the gorillas had rather unorthodox methods to deal with them, say wearing scary masks to scare off the poachers, spray-painting the cattle, burning down snares that were oftentimes meant for antelopes and buffaloes, and on some occasions, Dian would physically confront the poachers. With time, Dian Fossey used her own money to buy boots, uniforms and pay more wages and provide food to the park wardens so as to motivate them to be more active in their work and enforce the anti-poaching laws in the park.
Having established a relationship with the mountain gorillas, Dian Fossey grew particularly close with one 5-year-old who got named Digit. Digit had a damaged finger on his right hand and had no playmates then. They mutually got close to each other and a true friendship was formed. Digit was however killed by poachers who had attacked his group and in the bid to protect and save them so that they may escape, he got severely stubbed on his hands and head thus dying. This infuriated Dian Fossey so much that she declared war on the poachers.
Given that Digit had become a celebrity from the photos of them both that got to be published, Dian Fossey used his death to raise attention and support for the conservation of the gorillas. This gave birth to the Digit Fund where funds were raised to aid the conservation of the gorillas and anti-poaching initiatives.
In the year 1980, Dian Fossey took time off to concentrate on her book “Gorillas in the Mist” and publish it as well. When she did return to Rwanda, it was not too long that she was found dead in her cabin in the year 1985. To date, her death is still a mystery. She was buried behind her cabin found in Karisoke, just beside her great friend Digit and a couple of others that died in the hands of poachers, set snares or other reasons.
The Dian Fossey Tomb is a tourist site that visitors in Volcanoes National Park can take a hike to see. During the hike, you will be given a full detail of her life and contribution to the gorilla population in Volcanoes National Park.
The Digit Fund was later renamed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and to date, it is still running and supports conservation and research efforts of the mountain gorillas in the Virunga mountains.