Dian Fossey was born on January 16, 1932 in San Francisco, California. She was the only child of George and Kitty Fossey. When she was only three, her mother divorced her alcoholic father and she didn't see him much afterwards. Three years later, her mother married a builder named Richard Price, who didn't treat her very well. For example, he insisted she eat her dinner in the kitchen with the housekeeper until she was ten.
From childhood and throughout adolescence, she took lessons at the St. Francis Riding academy. Fossey finished at Lowell high school and went on to the University of California at Davis to study animal husbandry, but after 2 years transferred to San Jose State, graduating in 1954 with a degree in occupational therapy. At 23, she worked at the Kosair Children's Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. Though she loved her job and had a special gift for communicating with disabled children, she had a desire to see more of the world.
In 1963, inspired by the writing of American zoologist, George B. Schaller, Dian took out a three year bank loan and traveled to Africa on Sept. 26. She visited Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where she looked up Louis Leakey, a man famous for his excavations. He was much too busy to give tours of his digs, but he charged Dian 14 shillings to look around. Leakey had just uncovered an important giraffe fossil. In her enthusiasm to look at it, Fossey slipped coming down a steep slope, fell into the excavation, sprained her angle and damaged the valuable specimen. The pain from her injury made Dian vomit on the fossil. This was Leakey's first impression of Dian Fossey.
From Tanzania, Dian, with her ankle injury, continued to the Kabara Meadow in the Congo where she had her first contact with the mountain gorilla. And after seven weeks in Africa, she returned to Louisville, Kentucky. Fossey stayed occupied with her job and she also wrote several articles for the Louisville Courier-Journal about her experiences with the gorillas of Virunga. Three years later, in March 1966, Louis Leakey stopped in Louisville on a speaking tour and met with Fossey again. Leakey believed that studies of great apes would shed light on the subject of human evolution and thought that they were an important key to understanding the behavior of the primate fossils he'd been excavating. He was now looking for someone to take on a long-term study of the Mountain Gorillas. He asked Dian if she would be interested in becoming his ‘gorilla girl,' (Fossey, 1983). She expressed her interest and Leakey said that he'd write her with his decision. He also joked that she should get her appendix out since she'll be so far away from a doctor. Six weeks later, Dian received a letter from Leakey, offering her the job and telling her that she didn't really have to get her appendix out – that was just a test of her determination, but it was too late, she already had it removed.
So in late December 1966, Dian arrived in Africa once again. She spent the first few days with Jane Goodall at Gombe to study her methods. Then she went on to Nairobi, where Leakey helped her obtain the supplies necessary for her jungle camp. This included two tents and a used Land Rover named ‘Lily.'
An experienced field photographer, named Alan Root, accompanied Dian to her Congo base and helped her set up camp. He stayed for two days and when he left Fossey later wrote, "I clung to my tent pole simply to avoid running after him," (Mowat, 1987). The first few days on the mountain were intensely lonely for Fossey – the only other humans were her two African employees whose language she didn't understand, but her determination saw her through and she was soon tracking the great apes. Her first strategy was silently sneaking up on them and quietly observing. Later, she changed her approach by announcing her presence to the gorillas by imitating their sounds. After six months, she was able to approach some of the groups as close as 30 feet.
Then one day in July of 1967, the park director sent Congolese soldiers to remove Fossey from the mountain. The Congo was engulfed in full scale civil war and the rebel leader, Moise Tshombe, took control of the Kisangani and Bukavu regions and the eastern end of the Congo came under threat. Fossey was detained for several weeks in Rumangabo. She bribed soldiers to take her to the Travelers Rest in Uganda and escaped under Walter Baumgartel's hotel bed. Even though this episode was very frightening to Dian, she was preparing to return to the Virunga volcanoes two weeks later. Unable to return to the Kabara, Fossey set camp in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park – a saddle between Mount Karisimbi and Mount Visoke – Dian called it Karisoke. In 1968, National Geographic sent Bob Campbell, a photographer, to capture Dian's "Kodak moments" on film. He spent several months at a time with her until 1972. Dian made many advancements and in 1969, a young male gorilla named Peanuts touched her hand. Bob Campbell caught the encounter on film and later said the experience for Fossey was ‘almost overwhelming,' (Fossey, 1983). After that, it was very difficult for Dian to just be a ‘dispassionate academic observer.' Several of the gorillas became familiar with Fossey's close presence. An adult male named Macho would come over to gaze into Fossey's eyes and Digit, a young male and Fossey's favorite, would play with her hair or gently whack her with leaves.
In 1970, Fossey left her gorillas to enroll at Cambridge University in England. After her first semester, she wrote to Leakey, "I hate it here because it isn't Africa," (Fossey, 1983). She stuck it out though because getting her Ph.D. was key to receiving the grants necessary to continue her gorilla studies in the field. In 1974, Fossey received her Ph.D. in zoology.
When she returned to the Karisoke Research Center, she started spending less and less time in the field and more time at her camp doing paperwork. This was partly because graduate students were now working for her to observe the animals, but mostly because her health was failing. Her legs were weak and she had hairline fractures on her feet that made walking to have daily contact with the animals impossible. Dian spent ˝ of her time recording the life of the mountain gorillas in great detail and the other ˝ of her life protecting the Virunga Volcano animals from poachers. Although the animals were protected by national parks, poaching became an increasing problem as time went on. Fossey was constantly clearing snares and traps from the area. When Fossey arrived in Africa in 1966, there were an estimated 480 mountain gorillas left in the park. That number was slowly dwindling. She felt that unless something was done, the animals would soon face extinction. She was terrified for her gorilla family.
Her fear was justified, On New Years Day in 1978, the body of her favorite gorilla, Digit, was found riddled with spear wounds and his head and hands were hacked off. He was murdered while defending his family against the poachers. Six months later, the ape named Uncle Bert was also killed. Poachers murdered several other members of Bert's family group as well. Fossey buried the bodies in a cemetery she built by her camp.
The tension around her camp became so high that Fossey resigned directorship of Karisoke in 1980 and became a visiting associate professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She also began writing Gorillas in the Mist. In June 1983, Fossey returned to Karisoke as Director. In September of that same year, Gorillas in the Mist was published. Years later, her book was made into a movie, with Sigourney Weaver portraying Dian Fossey.
In December 1985, her wishes for peace with the local government came true. Sadly though, Fossey didn't get to enjoy this peaceful atmosphere because on December 26th, 1985, Dian Fossey was found with her skull crushed with a panga. Her killer, probably a poacher, was never found and she was buried in the cemetery next to her beloved gorillas. Her grave is marked:
Dian Fossey, American zoologist, whose field studies of wild gorillas in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda and Zaire served to dispel many myths about the violent and aggressive nature of gorillas. The people of Rwanda killed gorillas primarily because of their belief of sumu, which means ‘black magic' in Swahili, (Shoumatoff, 1988). They thought that magic potion made from boiled gorilla gave drinkers the strength of the gorilla. Poachers also killed for their body parts and meat. Large numbers of deaths generally occurred when they were trying to protect an infant. When Rwandese captured infant gorillas for zoos, the most destruction occurred because adult gorillas, like humans, are very protective of the infants. In order to capture an infant, many adults are destroyed. An example of this would be an event in March 1969, where Fossey learned that an infant was held at park headquarters. Ten members were killed trying to protect Coco, one of her first patients along with Pucker.
From Dian Fossey's research we have learned that gorillas live in a tightly-knit family consisting of an adult male leader, his adult brother, or nephew, and a few adult females and their children. They move and feed together, rarely separated by more than 100 feet. The children are treated very tenderly by even the largest of males. Adult males are called ‘silverbacks' because the fur on their back turns silver gray as they mature.
George Schaller and Dian Fossey observed that gorillas are ‘amiable vegetarians' that live in small cohesive family groups. If it wasn't for Dian Fossey, we wouldn't be as knowledgeable about mountain gorillas as we are today. Many people think that she went too far, but Schaller thought that she did what had to be done: "Her priority was correct; when the existence of a rare creature is threatened, a conservation effort becomes primary. Science is secondary. Silently, as if entombed by fog, the Virunga gorillas might have retreated into oblivion had not Dian Fossey drawn international attention to their renewed plight," (Matthews, 1998). Due largely to Fossey's research and conservation work, mountain gorillas are now protected by the Rwandan government and by the international conservation and scientific communities.