Dian Fossey – Conservationist and Primatologist

By Jaime Seltzer

“Any observer is an intruder in the domain of a wild animal and must remember that the rights of that animal supersede human interests.”

Dian Fossey was born in San Francisco in 1932. Her parents divorced when she was very young due to her father’s drinking and problems with the law, and eventually her mother re-married, but Dian’s stepfather did not treat her with much kindness.

Despite her challenging childhood, Dian had an astounding patience and capacity for empathy, and her initial career path vacillated between veterinary school and Occupational Therapy. She worked for awhile as a Director of Occupational therapy at the Kosair Crippled Children’s Hospital.

One year, a friend returned from Africa with pictures that excited Dian’s imagination, and it became her life’s ambition to visit Africa. For a few months, she debated back and forth with herself whether she ought to go; but once her mind was made up, she was resolute. Dian took out a loan from her bank and emptied out her life savings to hire a driver and purchase equipment to make the trip.

Think of the silliest thing you have ever done in public. Now think of how small it is in comparison to falling on your face, rolling down a hill, breaking your ankle and a precious anthropological specimen, and hurling your guts out all over it in front of an audience.

She reached Africa in 1963, planning a tour that would take her all across the continent. One of her goals was to visit Dr. Louis Leakey’s excavation site at Olduvai Gorge. Dr. Leaky was an archeologist and anthropologist who studied hominids. Dian was so excited to meet him that she did not watch where she was going. Dian slipped, rolled down in a tumble of limbs and came to a crashing halt on top of some fossilized remains, snapping them! Not only that, but she had broken her ankle in the fall, and the sharp stab of pain made her toss her cookies all over the newly-excavated specimen.

Think of the silliest thing you have ever done in public. Now think of how small it is in comparison to falling on your face, rolling down a hill, breaking your ankle and a precious anthropological specimen, and hurling your guts out all over it in front of an audience. (Now: don’t you feel better?)

Nevertheless, Leaky took a liking to Dian, and began to discuss the work of Jane Goodall, who was studying chimpanzees in Tanzania. Leaky talked about how understanding primates and their behavior could help humankind understand their distant ancestors, like the hominids he was digging up. He spoke of how, despite the work of Goodall, there was a need for more people to study great apes.

Dian had always planned to try to catch sight of a gorilla. Despite her mangled ankle, her conversation with Leaky only made her even more determined. She met up with Joan and Alan Root, two photographers who had planned to take pictures of the gorillas for a documentary, and they agreed that she could tag along.

What happened next would change Dian’s life forever. She, Joan and Alan crouched in the underbrush in a thick fog as the apes came in and out of view like ghosts. She was struck by their behavior: even on such a short acquaintance, it was immediately clear that, like people, each had a distinct personality; and they seemed shy to Dian, approaching one another by sidling up quietly and making little eye contact. This went against the public perception that gorillas were fierce, inherently violent creatures.

Dian Fossey

Dian Fossey and her card in Women in Science.

For Dian, it was love at first sight. She left Africa to work so that she could re-pay her loan, but her trip to Africa had ceased to be a vacation and became a vocation the moment she caught sight of the gorillas.

Dian published some short articles and photographs in local newspapers and journals, and showed them to Dr. Leaky when he gave a talk in Louisville three years later. It must have been some conversation, because Leaky recommended that she return to Africa to study gorillas full-time, even though Dian did not have a doctorate or even a degree in a related field. He also told her point-blank that if she wanted to study gorillas in such a remote area, she should get her appendix removed at the very least, since there was no hospital for miles around.

Dian took him at his word and got her appendix removed, only to find out later that he’d been either joking (good one!) or testing her mettle. Regardless, her appendix would not be bursting in the middle of the Congo!

Dian learned Swahili from a phrasebook she’d bought. By the end of 1966, she was back in Nairobi, and Joan Root was waiting there to meet her. Together, they bought food and set off in a Land Rover that Dr. Leaky had provided.

Because she had absolutely no training in primatology or anthropology or any of those other important -ologies, Dian stopped to spend some time watching Jane Goodall do her thing with chimpanzees before finishing her trip to the Congo, where Alan Root spent a few days training her in tracking the apes through the jungle. When he left, Dian had to cling to one of the poles of her tent to prevent herself from chasing after him! She had realized for the first time just how alone she would be.

Luckily for Dian, a Congolese man named Sanwekwe, who had helped the Roots track gorillas, arrived to help Dian. Soon, the pair had identified three groups of gorillas who lived in the area.

At first, the gorillas would run away the moment Dian approached. She soon learned to imitate their shy manner, avoiding eye contact, approaching very slowly, and copying their vocalizations as best she could. These actions were based in part on advice she had received from the works of George Schaller, the only other person studying the great apes at the time. She sketched each individual in her field notebooks, and was soon capable of telling them apart.

Then war came to the Congo. In July of 1967, Dian and Sanwekwe returned to the camp to find soldiers waiting to escort her away from the site. Dian remained under guard for two weeks before she managed to trick the soldiers into taking her to a city where she had many friends, whereupon the soldiers were arrested by the Ugandan government.

Still, Dian and Leaky felt it best to move her campsite to the other side of the mountains, which was in Rwanda instead of Zaire. Dian befriended several Rwandans who helped her locate the second site, which she called Karisoke. This meant that Dian had to learn a new language all over again, because her helpers in Rwanda spoke Kinyarwanda, not Swahili. Still, she located six groups of gorillas in her new location and, by imitation of their behavior, was able to approach four of the six.

It was at this time that she was first photographed with the gorillas by Bob Campbell of National Geographic. The sight of Dian touching and tending to the gorillas (who seem pretty blasé about the weird, pale thing in their midst) changed the public perception of apes, who had been viewed as violent and unpredictable creatures.

Dian now knew that the gorillas had family units, and that they mourned if a gorilla in the group died; she also knew that they were vegetarian, and understood a great deal about their eating, sleeping, and grooming habits. She knew that, like humans, gorillas enjoyed teasing one another and playing. However, she feared her lack of education prevented her from being able to interpret her findings clearly, and describe them in language that the academic community understood and respected. She knew if she did not legitimize her research, she would lose funding. To that end, she began working on her Ph.D. in 1970, travelling back and forth from Rwanda to Cambridge. She studied under Dr. Robert Hinde, who had also been Jane Goodall’s mentor, and earned her doctorate four years later.

While life on one side of the mountains had been largely people-free, Dian found that, on the other, poachers abounded. There was a lively black market trade in the severed heads and hands of gorillas, and the park wardens were ill-equipped and not numerous enough to protect the gorillas. Sometimes, poachers weren’t even after the gorillas, but traps they had set for other animals ensnared them anyway. Dian was horrorstruck and filled with rage. She burned the traps she found, confronted hunters and poachers directly on occasion, and even used some of her own funding to better arm and outfit the park wardens. She was fierce and unrelenting in her protection of her tribe of gorillas, even spreading the rumor that she was a witch who could curse men who crossed her.

Dian had made especial connections to the gorillas in Group Four, as it was called: the fourth group she discovered on the Rwandan side of the mountains. Her favorite was a young gorilla she called Digit, who she had watched grow up. He had no playmates his own age, and so Dian befriended him.

One of her research assistants discovered the body of Digit one day in the jungle: poachers had taken his head and hands. Digit had been the lookout for his group, and he had died defending them. Dian was inconsolable, but it was only the start of tragedy for Group Four. Indubitably because Dian had managed to thwart the poachers for so long, they now seemed to exclusively focus on the gorillas she studied. Next, a large silverback was taken from the Group whom Dian had named after her Uncle Bert; he died defending his young son. Dian’s researchers later found that the young gorilla had been winged by a bullet, and later died of gangrene.

Dian turned her grief and rage into publicity for the conservation effort, using the story to raise more money to purchase better defense for the gorillas. In the early 1980s, she returned to the United States to engage in fundraising efforts, teach at Cornell University, and write an account of her time in Africa called Gorillas in the Mist; in 1988, a movie starring Sigourney Weaver as Dian Fossey was produced based off of the book and articles about Dian.

Dian returned to Africa in 1985, where she was murdered in her cabin at age 54. Her body was buried beside Digit’s in Africa; the killer or killers were never found, but it is widely presumed that poachers ended her life to continue hunting gorillas unimpeded.

Despite this horrific end to Dian’s story, her legacy is immeasurable. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International continues to raise money to help save the mountain gorillas from poachers and environmental challenges. Even after Dian’s facility was destroyed in the Rwandan Civil War, it was rebuilt in a new location. No matter the efforts of those who were willing to end the lives of peaceful creatures for monetary gain, because of Dian Fossey, the world understands more about gorillas than it ever could have without her empathetic aid; and because we understand more about their behavior, we gain greater understanding of human behavior.

Conservation efforts to save the mountain gorilla continue to this day, because of Dian Fossey’s bravery, empathy, and determination.

Biography.com Editors. (n.d.). Dian Fossey. In bio. Retrieved September 25, 2015, from http://www.biography.com/people/dian-fossey-9299545
Dian Fossey – Biography. (2015). In the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. Retrieved September 25, 2015, from http://gorillafund.org/dian_fossey_bio
Fossey, D. (1983). Gorillas in the Mist. Boston MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
The Gorilla King ~ Additional Web and Print Resources. (2008, June 11). In Nature – PBS. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/the-gorilla-king-additional-web-and-print-resources/741/

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