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Mission Africa Safari: The Legacy of Dian Fossey

Mission Africa Safari: The Legacy of Dian Fossey

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The 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s were dark years for large primates in Africa.  Gorillas and Chimpanzees had faced constant conflict, persecution and poaching from humans. However, thanks to the work of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey under the guidance of Dr. Louis Leakey, people’s perspective on these large primates has changed.

After the success of Jane Goodall’s with chimpanzees in Gombe Tanzania, Dr. Leaky felt that a similar study needed to be carried out with mountain gorillas within the Virunga region and orangutans Indonesia. Goodall’s love for Chimpanzees enabled her to study and learn complex behavior from these great primates. She discovered that chimpanzees lived in complex societies and had several traits that included waging war with neighboring rivals. She also succeeded in illustrating how compassionate, loving and inventive chimpanzees could be. Goodall’s success along with Dr. Leakey’s encouragement led Dian Fossey to become a primatologist and later become an authority in all things related to mountain gorillas.

Earlier Life of Dian Fossey

Dian Fossey was born in California in 1932 and later lived with a strict step father who was a businessman.  She never knew what it means to grow up in a loving and caring family setting which might explain her often isolated lifestyle while working in Africa.  The emotional support she lacked at home contributed to her love for animals leading to her enrollment for a pre-veterinary course at the age of 19 at the University of California ending a business course at the College of Martin. Her change of course was not supported by her parents and financial support was henceforth not reliable. To finance her studies, she took a job as a Clerk and Machine operator in a factory graduating as an Occupational Therapist at the San Jose State College. After graduation in 1956, Dian Fossey worked as an Occupational Therapist at the Kosair Crippled Children’s Hospital in Louisville. It was here that she developed a close relationship with Mary White, a coworker who invited her to their home and family farm. Dian Fossey felt at home here and worked with livestock and her favorite animal then the horse.

Her work in Africa

In 1963, Dian Fossey embarked on a seven week trip to Africa where she visited Tsavo National Park, the Ngorongoro crater, Mt. Mikeno, Lake Manyara and finally  Olduvai Gorge. It is at Oduvai Gorge that she met the Leakey family who briefed her about Jane Goodall and her work with the Chimpanzees in Gombe. Dian Fossey’s first encounter with mountain gorillas was while on a wildlife and gorilla tour in Uganda on that first visit.  From Uganda, Dian Fossey spent a while in Rhodesia and then headed back to Louisville. She wrote several articles about her amazing experience in Africa for a journal newspaper some of which she presented to Leaky during his nationwide lecture tour in Louisville. Leaky was impressed with her work and determination and in December 1966 offered her a funding opportunity to research about mountain gorillas in Africa. She met Jane Goodall at Gombe Stream Research Center on her way to Congo before beginning her work at Kabara.

Relying on her natural love for animals, the extra training she received on primates and the skills she obtained as an occupational therapist, Fossey realized that mimicking Gorilla actions like beating her chest and making grunting sounds gave them assurance hence leading to trust. She wrote several articles and that were published in leading magazines and journals including the National Geographic. Her research with mountain gorillas was extensively covered and gave her and the mountain gorillas much publicity globally.

Whereas her work with the mountain gorillas was attracting attention and support, her work in Africa was always challenging. She was given a first doze of these challenges when her initial work in Zaire (The Democratic Republic of Congo) was cut short by the political unrest after independence and the rise of Mobutu Sese Seko to power. She briefly relocated to Uganda before it was agreed she establishes base in Rwanda. Dian Fossey settled well in Rwanda later founding the Karisoke Research Center in September 24 1967.

Her second and major challenge was to deal with unchecked poaching and rampant hunting in the greater Virunga region and particularly Rwanda. Infant mountain gorillas along with other wild animals were often kidnapped for sale to the international black market by local poachers. Animal body parts like hands were used to make magic charms and ash trays. Each attack on a young mountain often led to the death of between 5 to 10 individuals because adult gorillas defend their young to the death. There was no real effort by the local park authorities to curb the poaching vice as they often accepted bribes from some of the poacher given their poor pay. Dian Fossey realized that continued decrease in the number of mountain gorillas and poaching would undermine her work. The death of Digit her favorite gorilla was particularly hurting and traumatizing. The pain of losing Digit in a tragic way is said to have led her to resort to heavy smoking and drinking despite being diagnosed with emphysema. It is also one of the reasons she later channeled most of her efforts from gorilla research to gorilla conservation.

She took matters into her own hands and along with her team of local staff, destroyed 987 snares and traps in 1979 – something 24 park guards could not do in four months. Dian Fossey went as far as arresting, interrogating and torturing poachers – occasionally holding poachers’ children just to get to the culprits themselves. She often wore masks during encounters with poachers causing fear among locals who thought she was witch. These methods and her great determination to end poaching at all costs did not often win her friends especially among the poachers and those benefiting from the vice.

Gorilla Conservation legacy

Dian Fossey made great contributions in the area of Gorilla conservation and research. Her initial findings divided all Gorilla Conservation efforts into three categories – the Active, Theoretical and Community approaches. The Active approach required eliminating poaching through strong laws, looking out for and destroying traps and snares in the parks. The Theoretical Approach involved promoting tourism through improved infrastructure and security. The Community based Approach would require protecting the parks and forest reserves from encroachment while also sensitizing communities on the importance of tourism. The community based approach also required developing the local communities around the park and encouraging sustainable agriculture to stop encroachment on wildlife reserves.   These theories have greatly shaped modern gorilla programmes and activities like the gorilla census and habituation process.

In later years, Dian Fossey strongly opposed gorilla tourism programs by the international gorilla conservation organizations that were starting to see monetary opportunities in the extremely popular gorilla trekking experience. She felt that mountain gorillas need to be left undisturbed in the wild. She believed encouraging gorilla tourism would expose gorilla families to disease like influenza leading to death. This change in opinion about gorilla tourism, her own work methods and later drinking problems led to conflicts with colleagues she supervised in her remote research center. Unfortunately, some of her own interns felt she was not stable enough to continue with managing the research center. It appears that her opponents only had selfish intensions including taking control of her Karisoke Research Center.

Her death and legacy

Dian Fossey was found murdered in her room by people believed to be poachers. She was found lying on her cabin in a pool of blood from a machete blow on the head. The assailant had no other intention apart from ending her life, since all her valuables were left intact. Through her relentless fight against poaching, Dian Fossey had gotten herself many enemies but it remains unclear as to who were really responsible for the death. There are even claims her death was the work of illegal gold smugglers. Wayne McGuire, one of her research assistant was sentenced to death by the Rwandan court but fled the country just before the conviction to seek refuge in the US in July 1987. A local Sanwekwe, who was said to have taken part in the attack, was found dead in his prison cell. Dian Fossey was laid to rest besides Digit her favorite gorilla. For true primate lovers, visiting the grave of Dian Fossey and the Karisoke Research Center is a great way to pay homage to this great primatologist and also understand in detail about her work with mountain gorillas in Africa.

Regardless of the difficulties she faced, perceived personal weaknesses, nothing can take away the fact that Dian Fossey truly loved mountain gorillas and dedicated much of her productive life towards studying and ensuring the protection and survival of the endangered species. Dian Fossey left a great legacy behind and through her research, developed methods which are still used for several gorilla conservation programmes today – including starting the first true gorilla census. Gorilla habituation would not be possible if it weren’t for some of the methods she discovered that made gorillas comfortable around humans. She is credited with ensuring the survival of mountain gorillas and several other organizations have continued from where she left by continuing to support and promote gorilla conservation programmes such as the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. The number of mountain gorillas has now increased from less than 400 in the 1980’s to over 1000 as discovered during the gorilla census 2018. In recognition of her great work, the government of Rwanda has adapted the Gorilla Baby naming ceremony that she herself had started.

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Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.

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