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Dian Fossey

Dian Fossey Photo

Dian Fossey, the world’s most notable primatologist, and naturalist was born on 16th January 1932, in San Francisco, California. Even as a child she showed a natural affinity for animals which grew even deeper into adulthood and she decided to take on veterinary medicine as a career. However, after she got enrolled in pre-veterinary studies at the University of California, Davis, she changed her mind and opted for occupational therapy at San Jose State College.

She graduated from San Jose in 1954 and started her internship at a hospital in California. In 1955, she moved to Louisville, Kentucky, and took up the position of director of the Kosair Crippled Children’s Hospital’s occupational therapy department. Living an idyllic life surrounded by animals on a farm on the outskirts of Louisville, Fossey soon started to feel restless and deep within her grew the urge to explore the rest of the world, specifically Africa.

‘Gorillas in the Mist’

In 1963, Fossey took hold of her entire life savings and a bank loan and financed her first ever trip to Africa. During this trip, she visited Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and the Congo, among other places. It was on this trip that she came across one of the best-known couples working in science, paleoanthropologist Louis and Mary Leakey, whose work had a profound effect in changing Fossey’s destiny.

On this trip, Fossey was also introduced to Joan and Alan Root, two native wildlife photographers who were making a documentary about African gorillas at that time. Fossey accompanied the couple on one of their shoots in search of primates and instantly lost her heart to the gorillas found on those misted mountains. In later years Fossey explained her instant attraction to gorillas in her autobiographical book “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 added that, after this initial encounter, leaving Kabara was difficult but in her heart she knew that soon she would return to get to know these majestic creatures a little better.

After returning from her trip, Dian Fossey got together with Louis Leakey again at a lecture in Louisville in 1966. Leaky was a strong believer in the fact that studying primates could uncover important information about the evolution of humans. In this regard, he invited Fossey to a long-term study of the endangered gorillas of Rwanda’s mountain forest. Fossey needed no convincing and instantly agreed to accompany the Leaky’s on this trip. She stayed amongst the mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo until the war broke out and she was forced to take refuge in Rwanda.

In 1967, while pursuing her Ph.D. based on her research on gorillas from Cambridge University, Fossey also established the Karisoke Research Foundation in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park to help study mountain gorillas. She got her doctorate in 1976 and later accepted a visiting faculty position at Cornell University.

Gorillas in the Mist was published  in 1983 and instantly become a best-seller, followed by a film in 1988 of the same title starring Sigourney Weaver as Fossey.

Death and Legacy

Till date, Dian Fossey is known to be one of the leading authorities on the habitat, nature, physiology, and behavior of mountain gorillas. Fossey’s life was spent fighting to protect these “gentle giants” from social, environmental and human hazards. In this fight, she made a multitude of enemies amongst game wardens, poachers, and government officials involved in the killing or smuggling of these animals.  It may have been one of such rivals, who tragically ended Fossey’s life on 26th December 1985, when she was found hacked to death at her Rwandan forest camp. No one has ever been prosecuted for her murder.

Today, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (formerly known as the Digit Fund), continues to work and protect the endangered gorillas, despite the odds.

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