Happy Birthday Dian Fossey

On this day in 1932 a great wildlife warrior was born. Dian Fossey was born and raised in San Francisco where a love of horses greatly influenced her early years and education. She began studying to be a veterinarian, though changed courses and pursued a career in occupational therapy. She saved every penny, and even took out a bank loan, and eventually made it to Africa in 1963, where it had been a dream to travel too for much of her adult life.

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It is in Africa that Dian Fossey began to become the woman she is remembered as, a passionate and fearless wildlife warrior. During her travels she visited Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and met Louis Leakey, who would later help her to conduct studies of mountain gorillas in Central Africa.

When Fossey met Leakey he discussed with her Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees, which had begun some three years previous, which had a lasting effect on Fossey which she carried with her until she met Leakey again at a lecture in 1966.

She discussed the possibility of returning to study the gorillas she had witnessed during her previous tour of Africa, and when Leakey told her that if she was serious about it she would need to have her appendix removed before going, she immediately went out and had the surgery. This was Leakey’s way of testing whether or not she was serious about conducting such a long-term study in a remote area of the world.

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By the end of 1966 she was back in Africa with a Land Rover loaded up with gear on her way to the Congo. She began her work in the Virunga Mountains in a place called Kabara that would become her home.

She lived in a 7 by 10 foot tent and slowly began to learn how to track and habituate the three groups of gorillas living in Kabara. For a year she worked tirelessly to identify, study, and habituate the individuals that she shared a forest with, until the political unrest and a band of armed soldiers took her from the mountains and kept her under military guard, until she bribed them to take her to Kisoro, Uganda where she called the military and had the soldiers arrested.

Against the advice of the U.S., Dian Fossey and Louis Leakey decided that she would continue her research in the Virunga’s, only this time returning to the Rwandan side of the mountain range.

Here she founded Karisoke where her studies of the mountain gorillas would continue until she herself became enculturated into the groups that she had observed. She was known for her gorillas vocalisations and her knuckle-walking into a group of gorillas who would become something of a family to Fossey.

She is not only famous for her work studying mountain gorillas but for the fact that she gave her life to protect them from poachers. Fossey dubbed her dangerous tactics ‘active conservation’ which included directly engaging poachers by wearing masks to scare them, spray painting cattle that was brought into the park and burning poachers supplies and camps.

During the winter of 1977 a gorilla named Digit with which Fossey had a particularly close bond was killed by poachers. She was infuriated by his death and used it as a rallying point to raise money to fund her ‘active conservation’ and anti-poaching methods.

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After moving to New York as a visiting professor at Cornell University for a few years, Fossey returned to Rwanda on a trip that would be her last. She was murdered a few weeks before her 54th birthday by an unknown assailant who hit her multiple times on the head and face with a machete. There were no signs of robbery and it is often thought that her death was in retaliation to her ‘active conservation’ methods.

Dian Fossey found her final resting place in Karisoke in a grave next to her beloved gorilla, Digit. Today her work is carried on by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund which researchers gorillas and works to conserve them.

“I shall never forget my first encounter with gorillas. Sound preceded sight. Odour preceded sound in the form of an overwhelming, musky-barnyard, humanlike scent. The air was suddenly rent by a high-pitched series of screams followed by the rhythmic rondo of sharp pok-pok chest-beats from a great silver-backed male obscured behind what seemed an impenetrable wall of vegetation.”

Dian Fossey

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