Dian Fossey, born on January 16, 1932, was an American primatologist famously remembered for her extensive study of mountain gorillas since 1966 until her murder in 1985. Dian Fossey spent twenty years among the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. She was to them what Jane Goodall was to the chimpanzees of Tanzania: she devoted her life to the mountain gorillas and made the world not only aware of their existence but also the need to jealously protect them.
In 1967 she set up camp in the Virunga Mountains, a chain of mainly extinct volcanoes along the Democratic republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda borders. This chain of mountains is home to 1000 or so mountain gorillas shared among three national parks namely; Mgahinga national park in Uganda, Volcanoes national park in Rwanda and Virunga national park in Democratic republic of Congo, as well Bwindi impenetrable national park in the neighborhood.
In that same year, she set up the Karisoke Research Foundation in Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda) to aid in the study of mountain gorillas, all the time devoting herself between securing a Ph.D. at Cambridge University and her fieldwork. She obtained her degree in 1976, and later agreed to be a visiting associate professorship at Cornell University.
During Dian’s time in the Virunga region, she actively opposed poaching, supported mountain gorilla conservation efforts and made many people know about the mountain gorillas. Dian Fossey’s habituation of mountain gorillas was remarkable as she did it without “provisioning” or bribing them. Unlike her counterpart, Jane Goodall who had to bribe the chimpanzees with bananas to be able to habituate them.
The more time she spent with these giant apes, so did Dian’s fear for them. The mountain gorillas were being poached at a shocking rate, at times in groups of five or ten in one day. With the remaining crew, Fossey started their own poaching patrols, destroying and removing traps, plus nursing hurt and abandoned infant gorillas back to health.
Her research then concentrated more on conservation efforts as compared to archeological research. She wrote to several bodies including the Rwandan national park system, the African Wildlife Foundation and World Wildlife Fund calling them to join the anti-poaching fight to save what would later become the world’s most sought after primate species.
Fossey’s book “Gorillas in the Mist”, became a world bestseller and was later turned into a movie with the same name. These two helped to increase conservation efforts by exposing to the western world the outrageous horrors that mountain gorillas were facing in the Virunga region.
Considered the leading influencer on conservation of mountain gorillas, Dian Fossey strived hard to protect the “gentle giants” from human and environmental threats. She saw gorillas as highly dignified and social creatures with individual characteristics and very strong family relationships.
Unfortunately on December 26, 1985, Dian Fossey was found butchered to death at her Rwandan forest camp most likely by poachers. A few people were arrested but no one was convicted and up-to-date her tragic death remains a mystery that might never be resolved.
Even after her demise, her efforts continues through the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and the Karisoke Research Foundation continues to thrive against all odds. Her efforts as an unrelenting conservationist were celebrated worldwide and until now she is a renowned icon of gorilla conservation.
Daily hikes are taken to her graveyard on the outskirts of Volcanoes national park, to pay tribute to the woman who sacrificed her life to protect the endangered mountain gorillas.