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Dian Fossey was an American zoologist who spent the better part of her life at a remote camp high up on the slopes of the Virungas studying the mountain gorillas. Born in 1932, Dian Fossey spent most of her life studying mountain gorillas extensively in their natural habitat and at her Karisoke Research Camp/center located between Mount Bisoke and Karisimbi in Rwanda.

Dian Fossey devoted 18 years of her life to studying and protecting Mountain gorillas in Africa, and made her home in the Virunga range of volcanoes that straddles the borders of Rwanda, Congo and Uganda.

Without her tenacious efforts to have poaching stamped out, and the work of committed local since her violent murder, there possibly wouldn’t be any of the great apes remaining in Rwanda. She made the world know more about mountain gorillas and advocated for their protection against extensive poaching.  It’s widely believed that without her efforts, mountain gorillas would have been extinct or their numbers drastically reduced.

Lets first look at the courageous Dian Fossey who played an important role in the history of the mountain gorillas and ensured that she saved them from extinction. She flee from Congo forest in the 1960’s and established a gorilla research center but was later killed and she was buried near the grave of her favorite gorilla digit. This year will mark her 30th death anniversary.

Many guides say that the gorilla trek in volcanoes national park is a pilgrimage people walk because of their desire to pay tribute to the great works Dian Fossey did. Dian left San Francisco around 1963 for East Africa to discover more about the mountain gorillas. She first did her research in Congo but was forced to move to Rwanda because of the instability in Congo at that time. After establishing her research center in Rwanda, she was commonly referred to as Nyiramacibiri by the local Rwandese around the area which meant ‘a woman who lives alone in the mountain’.

The route people follow today is the one that Dian used while going to Kinigi village to get the required supplies she need to sustain her in the mountain. She would collect these supplies at least twice a month. While hiking the Virunga volcanoes in Rwanda, much effort is required and when it’s raining, heavy raindrops fall from the sky as well as lightening and thunder in the clouds. As you proceed, you reach a clear surface where Dian had constructed her house. All that remains today is just a destroyed foundation and sadly no one has ever been charged with her murder.

What is clearly noticed is that the campaign Dian Fossey took against poaching of the mountain gorillas earned her many enemies and any of them must have attacked and killed her but one thing is for sure; the Dian Fossey legacy still lives and works are clearly seen in the increase in the gorilla population in the area. The research center she started today employs over 120 people.

Her Works in Africa

Although trained in occupational therapy, in 1963 Fossey took out a loan and traveled to Tanzania where she met Dr Louis and Mary Leakey. She had been invited to Africa by the great paleoanthropologist Dr. Richard Leakey to study the life of mountain gorillas in the wild. Dr. Leakey thought that by studying our closest relatives the gorillas, we would understand human origin even better.

During her visit, she learned about the pioneering work of Jane Goodall with chimpanzee and Gearge schaller’s ground breaking studies on gorillas. By 1966 Fossey had secured the funding and support of the Leakey family, and began conducting field research of her own. However, political unrest caused her to abandon her efforts the following year at kabara (in the Democratic Republic of Congo), and establish the Karisoke Research centre, a remote camp on Bisoke in the more politically stable Rwanda Virungas.

While Fossey was still working in Kentucky at Kosair children’s hospital, she used available time to publish several articles and pictures from her trip in Africa. She joined others to speak with Leakey during a lecture tour he made to Louisville. It is during this lecture tour that Fossey showed Dr. Louis Leakey her published articles. It caught Leakey’s attention and he told her of a long-term project to study the gorillas in Africa. In 1966, Fossey returned to Africa and arrived in Nairobi with assistance from Joan Root. From Nairobi, she proceeded to the Congo and she made a stop visit at the Gombe Stream Research Center where she met Jane Goodall and observed her research methods with chimps.

On October 16th 1966, Fossey visited the Travellers Rest Hotel in Uganda located next to the Virunga Mountains and their mountain gorillas. This hotel was run by Walter Baumgartel who was also an advocate for gorilla conservation and protection. He was among the few people who realized the benefits of tourism in the region. He recommended that Fossey meets with Joan and Alan Root, Kenyan wildlife photographer who were collecting footage of the gorillas for a photographic documentary. She was permitted to camp behind their cabin and after a few days, she was taken in the forest to look for mountain gorillas. It was during this period when she encountered a family of gorillas and she was able to see and take pictures of these beautiful creatures. She developed a firm resolve to return and study more about them.

Dian Fossey was escorted by Alan Root to D.R. Congo where she obtained a permit, she required to visit gorillas in the Virunga Mountains. He hired 2 men to work with her at the camp plus porters to assist carry her luggage and gear to the Kabara meadow.

Root helped Fossey set up a camp and briefed her about gorilla trekking/tracking. She spent 10 minutes and she came across male gorilla. Dian Fossey became motivated and settled at Kabara and she habituated Kabara family.

In 1967, she established the Karisoke Research Centre following her successful research in the Congo Virunga Mountains. The Karisoke Research Centre was aimed at helping her research work in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. She also founded the Digit Fund in 1978 and this was named after her favorite silverback “Digit.” She studied about Volcanoes NP gorillas for 18 years and in 1985 she was mysteriously murdered in the forest. Her legacy still lives on as her work inspired many young African conservationists which gives hope to survival of gorillas.

As Dian Fossey learnt more about the great apes, she channeled her efforts from research to protection and gorilla conservation. She opposed poaching and fought against gorilla tourism recommending that mountain gorillas be left undisturbed in their natural habitat.   Some of the methods she used for dealing with poachers might have been considered excessive but she always had the interests of the mountain gorillas at heart.

In 1968 National Geographic photographer Bob Campbell went to live with her, and photographed Dian’s daily routine: confronting cattle herders in the park, monitoring gorilla groups, fetching supplies from town, organizing anti-poaching patrols, and writing up her notes at her “Karisoke” research centre (so named because it sat in the saddle between Mt Visoke and Mt Karisimbe).

Fossey was catapulted to international stardom when her photograph was snapped by Bob Campbell in 1970 and splashed across the cover of National Geographic. Seizing her new found celebrity status, Fossey embarked on a massive publicity campaign aimed at saving the mountain gorillas from impending extinction.

Bob and Dian subsequently became romantically involved, as was told in the movie Gorillas in the Mist.

Unfortunately good works also attracts hatred. Dian Fossey was murdered in a remote house on top of the mountains in1985.  She was buried in the gorilla graveyard at Karisoke next to some of the gorillas she worked so hard to protect. Fossey was brutally murdered on 26 December 1985. Her skull was split open by a panga, a type of machete used by local poachers to cut the heads and hands of gorillas. This bloody crime scene caused the media to speculate that poarchers, who were angered by her conservationist stance, murdered her in a fit of range.

Who Killed Dian Fossey?

Circumstances surrounding her murder remain a mystery but it’s believed that her murder was related to her strong conviction and desire to end poaching and protect the gorillas. While this may have been the case, a good measure of mystery still surrounds Fossey’s murder and despite the1986 conviction of the former student, many people believe that the murderer’s true identity was never credibly established and her former student was merely a convenient scapegoat.

Rwandan courts later tried and convicted Wayne McGuire in absentia for her murder. McGuire had returned to the United States following the murder, and because no extradition treaty exists between the U.S. and Rwanda, McGuire, whose guilt is still widely questioned, has not served his sentence.

Following his return to the U.S., McGuire gave a brief statement at a news conference saying Fossey had been his friend and mentor, calling her death “tragic” and the charges against him outrageous. Thereafter, McGuire was largely under the radar until 2005, when news broke that he had been accepted for a job with the Health and Human Services division of the State of Nebraska. The job offer was revoked upon discovery of his relation to the Fossey case.However; some scholars have suggested alternate theories regarding her murder including intimations that she may have been killed by financial interests linked to tourism or illicit trade.

Her Burial
Following the death, Fossey was buried in the virungas next to her favorite gorilla digit, who had previously been killed by poachers. Throughout his life, Dian fossey was a proponent of Active conservation: the belief that endangered species are best protected through rigorous anti-poaching measures and habitat protection. As a result, she strongly opposed the promotion of tourism in the Virunga range, though the Dian Fossey Gorilla fund international has changed its position on the issue since untimely death.

Famous Conservationist

Today Dian Fossey is one of the greatest and most prominent primatologists of the 20th century. She was considered an authority in all issues related to the endangered mountain gorillas from 1967 till her death in 1985. She is best known for her “gorillas in the mist”, which is both a description of her scientific research and an insightful memoir detailing her time in Rwanda.

Parts of her life story were later adapted in the film Gorillas in the mist: the movie was criticized for several fictitious scenes in which Fossey aggressively harasses local poachers, as well as its stylised portrayal of her affair with photographer Bob Campbell. It does, however, serve as a good introduction to the on going plight of the endangered mountain gorilla.

Because of her work and strong conviction, gorilla poaching has been eliminated or reduced considerably in Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo. Perhaps her greatest contribution was to discover how to make wild gorillas comfortable around human presence. By gaining the trust of mountain gorillas that had been fearful of humans due to large scale poaching, gorilla habituation for many more gorilla groups became possible.

Visitors can now see these gentile and amazing creatures up-close instead of talking about some savage creatures living deep in the jungles of Africa.
Despite her sad ending, the legacy and work of Dian Fossey remains and her famous book Gorillas in the Mist was later made a film depicting her personal life and work with the gorillas – A must watch. Even with her death, her work was not in vain. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund international (DFGF) continues to work towards the conservation of the mountain gorillas by running several projects including taking care of gorilla groups within East and Central Africa.

The number of mountain gorillas keeps increasing. In fact, it is believed that there could now be over 1000 mountain gorillas living in the vast forests and mountain slopes of Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo.

Before you learn more about how to pay homage to Dian Fossey, you might want to check out our 3 Days Gorilla tour and Dian Fossey memorial hike.