Who Was Dian Fossey?
While working as an occupational therapist, Dian Fossey became interested in primates during a trip to Africa in 1963. She studied the endangered gorillas of the Rwandan mountain forest for two decades before her unsolved murder occurred in 1985, at Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. Fossey told her story in the book Gorillas in the Mist (1983), which was later adapted for a film starring Sigourney Weaver.
Fossey was born on January 16, 1932, in San Francisco, California, and grew up with her mother and stepfather. Developing an affinity for animals at a young age, throughout her youth, Fossey was an avid horseback rider and an aspiring veterinarian. However, after enrolling in pre-veterinary studies at the University of California, Davis, she transferred to San Jose State College and changed her major to occupational therapy.
After graduating from San Jose in 1954, Fossey spent several months working as a hospital intern in California and then moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where she began serving as director of the Kosair Crippled Children's Hospital's occupational therapy department in 1955. Living on a farm on the outskirts of Louisville, Fossey spent many off-hours happily tending to the livestock. But her contentment didn't last long. She soon became restless, longing to see other parts of the world and setting her sights on Africa.
'Gorillas in the Mist'
In September 1963, Fossey embarked on her first trip to Africa—which cost Fossey her entire life savings at the time, as well as a bank loan—visiting Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and the Congo, among other areas. She soon met paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey and her husband, archaeologist Louis Leakey, one of the best-known husband-wife teams in the history of science.
Fossey then met Joan and Alan Root, native wildlife photographers who were working on a documentary of African gorillas at the time, and when the couple brought her along on one of their trips in search of the primates, Fossey was instantly enamored. She later explained her draw to gorillas in her 1983 autobiographical work, 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," Fossey said. "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."
Back in Kentucky, Fossey caught up with Louis Leakey at a lecture in Louisville in 1966, and he invited her to take on a long-term study of the endangered gorillas of the Rwandan mountain forest (Leakey believed that researching primates would greatly benefit the study of human evolution). Fossey accepted the offer and subsequently lived among the mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo until civil war forced her to escape to Rwanda.
In 1967, Fossey established the Karisoke Research Foundation in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park to facilitate the study of mountain gorillas, alternating her time between her fieldwork there and obtaining a Ph.D. based on her research at Cambridge University. She earned her degree in 1976, and later accepted a visiting associate professorship at Cornell University.
Published in 1983, Fossey's Gorillas in the Mist went on to become a best-seller. A film with the same name was also released in 1988, starring Sigourney Weaver as Fossey.
Death and Legacy
Considered the world's leading authority on the physiology and behavior of mountain gorillas, Fossey fought hard to protect these "gentle giants" from environmental and human hazards. She saw these animals as dignified, highly social creatures with individual personalities and strong family relationships. Her active conservationist stand to save these animals from game wardens, zoo poachers, and government officials who wanted to convert gorilla habitats to farmland caused her to fight for the gorillas not only via the media, but also by destroying poachers' dogs and traps.
Tragically, on December 26, 1985, Fossey was found hacked to death, presumably by poachers, at her Rwandan forest camp. No assailant has ever been found or prosecuted in her murder.
Today, Dian Fossey's work continues through the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (formerly named the Digit Fund), under which the Karisoke Research Foundation continues to operate, despite the odds: After Karisoke's original facility in Rwanda was destroyed during the Rwandan civil war, its headquarters were relocated to Musanze. The foundation recently brought in its first Rwandan director. According to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund's website, "since Fossey's death in 1985, the Fund's activities have expanded to include the protection of Grauer's (eastern lowland) gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as the mountain gorillas in that country's Virunga National Park and other endangered species in the gorillas' habitats."
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