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Dian Fossey (January 16, 1932 in San Franciscomarker, Californiamarker – December 26, 1985, Virunga Mountainsmarker, Rwandamarker) was an American zoologist who undertook an extensive study of gorilla groups over a period of 18 years. She observed them daily for years in the mountain forests of Rwandamarker, initially encouraged to work there by famous paleontologist Louis Leakey. She was murdered in 1985, possibly by poachers.

Her work is somewhat similar to Jane Goodall's work with chimpanzees.


The first college Fossey went to was Marin Junior College, and she took business classes.Fossey enrolled in a pre-veterinary course in biology at the University of California, Davismarker, after attending Lowell High Schoolmarker in San Francisco, going against the advice of her stepfather who wanted her to pursue business instead. She supported herself by working as a clerk at White Front (a department store), doing other clerking and laboratory work, and working as a machinist in a factory. Fossey later transferred to San José State College (now San José State Universitymarker) to study occupational therapy after having difficulty with chemistry and physics. She received her bachelor's degree in 1954. At that time, Fossey also established herself as an equestrian.

Initially following her college major, Fossey began a career in occupational therapy, eventually becoming director of the occupational therapy department at Kosair Children's Hospital in Louisville, Kentuckymarker. While working in Louisville (living a few miles south of the town on a farm called Glenmary) she attended a lecture by Louis Leakey. She subsequently received her PhD from Darwin Collegemarker, Cambridgemarker, for a thesis entitled "The behavior of the mountain gorilla" in 1976. Between 1981 and 1983 Dian Fossey lectured as Professor at Cornell Universitymarker in Ithacamarker, New York.

Interest in Africa

Fossey became interested in Africa after seeing photos and hearing about it from her friend Mary White Henry, who had been there. After taking out a loan in 1963, Fossey embarked on a trip to Africa. At Olduvai Gorgemarker, Tanzania, Fossey met Dr. Louis Leakey and his wife Mary Leakey while they were examining the area for hominid fossils. Louis talked to Fossey about the work of Jane Goodall and the importance of long term research of the great apes, work pioneered by George Schaller. After leaving the Leakeys, Fossey saw her first wild mountain gorillas during a visit to Uganda.

By 1966, Fossey had gained the support of Dr. Leakey, and through him, funds to carry out long-term research on the mountain gorillas. She began her field study at Kabaramarker, in the Democratic Republic of Congomarker (then Zaire), but by 1967, political upheaval, involving battles breaking out throughout Zaire, forced her to move to Rwanda.


In 1967, she founded the Karisoke Research Center, a remote rainforest camp nestled in the Virunga Mountainsmarker in Ruhengerimarker province, Rwanda. When her photograph, taken by Bob Campbell, appeared on the cover of National Geographic Magazine in January 1970, Fossey became an international celebrity, bringing massive publicity to her cause of saving the mountain gorilla from extinction, as well as convincing the general public that gorillas are not as bad as they are sometimes depicted in movies and books. Photographs showing the gorilla "Peanuts" touching Fossey's hand depicted the first recorded peaceful contact between a human being and a wild gorilla. Her extraordinary rapport with animals and her background as an occupational therapist brushed away the Hollywood "King Kong" myth of an aggressive, savage beast.

Fossey strongly supported "active conservation"—for example anti-poaching patrols and preservation of natural habitat—as opposed to "theoretical conservation", which includes the promotion of tourism. She was also strongly opposed to zoos, as the capture of individual animals all too often involves the killing of their family members. Many animals do not survive the transport, and the breeding rate and survival rate in zoos are often lower than in the wild. For example, in 1978, Fossey attempted to prevent the export of two young gorillas, Coco and Pucker, from Rwanda to the Cologne, Germany, zoo. She learned that, during their capture, 20 adult gorillas had been killed. The two captives were given to Fossey by their captors for treatment of injuries suffered during capture and captivity. With considerable effort, she restored them to some approximation of health. They were shipped to Cologne, where they lived nine years in captivity, both dying in the same month. She viewed the holding of animals in "prison" (zoos) for the entertainment of people as unethical.

Fossey is responsible for the revision of a European Community project that converted parkland into pyrethrum farms. Thanks to her efforts, the park boundary was lowered from the 3,000-meter line to the 2,500-meter line.

When Fossey's favourite gorilla, Digit, was decapitated for the price of $20 by poachers in 1977, she created the Digit Fund with the intent to raise money for anti-poaching patrols.

Fossey's 1983 autobiographical book Gorillas in the Mist was praised by Nikolaas Tinbergen, the Dutch ethologist and ornithologist who won the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Her book remains the best-selling book about gorillas of all time.


Fossey was murdered in the bedroom of her cabin on December 26, 1985. Her skull had been split by a panga (machete), a tool widely used by poachers, which she had confiscated years earlier and hung as a decoration on the wall of her living room adjacent to her bedroom. Fossey was found dead beside her bed and two meters away from the hole in the cabin that was cut on the day of her murder. Despite the violent nature of the wound, there was relatively little blood in her bedroom, leading some to believe that she was killed before the head-wound was inflicted, as head wounds, even superficial ones, usually bleed profusely.

Farley Mowat's biography of Fossey, Woman in the Mists, suggests that it is unlikely that she was killed by poachers. Mowat believes that she was killed by those who viewed her as an impediment to the touristic and financial exploitation of the gorillas. According to the book, which includes many of Fossey's private letters, poachers would have been more likely to kill her in the forest, with little risk to themselves.

On the night of Fossey's murder, a metal sheeting from her bedroom was removed at the only place of the bedroom where it would not have been obstructed by her furniture, which supports the case that the murder was committed by someone who was familiar with the cabin and her day-to-day activities. The sheeting of her cabin, which was normally securely locked at night, might also have been removed after the murder to make it appear as if the killing was the work of poachers. But, according to Mowat, it is unlikely that a stranger could have entered her cabin by cutting a hole and then going to her living-room to get the panga, giving Fossey time to escape. The cabin showed signs of a struggle as there was broken glass on the floor and tables and other furniture overturned. Fossey was found dead with her gun beside her but the ammunition didn't fit the weapon. All Fossey's valuables were still in the cabin - thousands of dollars in cash and travelers' checks, and photo equipment remained untouched — valuables a poor poacher would most likely have taken.

After Fossey's death, her entire staff, including Rwelekana, a tracker she had fired months before, was arrested. All but Rwelekana, who was later found dead in prison, supposedly having hanged himself, were released. Mowat believes that Fossey was murdered by an African man she may have admitted inside her cabin but who was working for the very people who wanted her removed so the gorillas could be exploited as a tourist and entertainment attraction.

Fossey is interred in Rwanda at Karisoke Research Station in a site that she herself had constructed for her dead gorilla friends. She was buried in the gorilla graveyard next to Digit, who was killed and beheaded in 1977, and near many gorillas killed by poachers. Today, the Karisoke Research Center is operated by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and continues the daily gorilla monitoring and protection that she started.

Fossey's will stated that all her money (including proceeds from the movie) should go to the Digit Fund to finance anti-poaching patrols. However, her mother, Kitty Price, challenged the will and won.

The director of ORTPN, Habirameye, who refused to renew Fossey's last visa request, insisted at the filming of Gorillas in the Mist that there should be as little about the death scene as possible.

Intrigues and opponents

According to Linda Melvern in her book Conspiracy to Murder, Protais Zigiranyirazo, Préfet of Ruhengerimarker, animal trader and Rwanda's ex-president's brother-in-law, could also have been "implicated in the murder of Dian Fossey in 1985." Quoting Nick Gordon, author of a book about Fossey's death, "Another reason why she might have been murdered is that she knew too much about the illegal trafficking by Rwanda's ruling clique." Protais Zigiranyirazo also had strong financial interests in gorilla tourism.

Fossey was portrayed by her detractors as eccentric and obsessed, and all kinds of stories circulated about her. According to her letters, ORTPN, the World Wildlife Fund, African Wildlife Foundation, FPS, the Mountain Gorilla Project and some of her former students tried to wrest control of the Karisoke research center from her for the purpose of tourism, by portraying her as unstable. In her last two years, Fossey claims not to have lost any gorillas to poachers; however the Mountain Gorilla Project, which was supposed to patrol the Mount Sabyinyomarker area, tried to cover up gorilla deaths caused by poaching and diseases transmitted through tourists. Nevertheless, these organizations received most of the public donations. The public often believed their money would go to Fossey, who was struggling to finance her anti-poaching patrols, while organizations collecting in her name put it into tourism projects and as she put it "to pay the airfare of so-called conservationists who will never go on anti-poaching patrols in their life."

Many of the organizations that opposed Fossey, including ORTPN (the Rwandan tourism office) and other wildlife organizations, used and continue to use her name for their financial gain up to this day. Weeks before her death, ORTPN refused to renew her visa, and pressure on Fossey was mounting. However, Fossey managed to obtain a special two-year visa through Augustin Nduwayezu, a benevolent Secretary-General in charge of immigration. Mowat believes that the extension of her visa amounted to a de facto death warrant.

Months before her death, Fossey signed a $1,000,000 contract with Universal Studios for a movie that was to be based on her book, Gorillas in the Mist. The prospect that her work would be funded far into the future may have contributed to her demise.


After her death, Fossey's Digit Fund in the U.S. was renamed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. The Digit Fund in the UK, which Fossey lost to the Fauna Protection League (FPS), was also renamed after her as "The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund UK" (DFGF-UK). However she never received any funds collected in her name by the FPS; and although some conservationists associated with the FPS wanted her to be removed from Rwanda FPS and the DFGF-UK (which renamed itself The Gorilla Organization in 2006), they continue to use her name up to this day for their financial purposes (including promotion of tourism, which Fossey opposed, and the financing of local bureaucrats).

One of Fossey's friends, Shirley McGreal, continues to work for the protection of primates through the work of her International Primate Protection League (IPPL) one of the few wildlife organizations that according to Fossey effectively promotes "active conservation".

In his book "The Dark Romance" H. Hayes writes that after Fossey's death no poacher dared to enter the forest out of fear of being arrested as a murder suspect and that after the conviction of one of her students poaching soared again, eliminating all remaining elephants and leopards.

Between Fossey's death until the 1994 Rwanda genocide, Karisoke was directed by former students who had opposed her. During the genocide, the camp was completely looted and destroyed. Today only remnants remain of her cabin, as it had been converted into a museum for tourists at the time. During the civil war the Virunga parks were filled with refugees and illegal logging destroyed vast areas.

Today, the Rwandan people have realized the importance of the mountain gorillas and their natural habitat. They have returned to the past by bringing back Kwita Izina - the Baby Gorilla Naming Ceremony in which each baby gorilla gets a name.


Mowat's Virunga, whose British and U.S. editions are called Woman in the Mist 'The Story of Dian Fossey and the Mountain Gorillas of Africa', was the first book-length biography of Fossey, and it serves as an insightful counterweight to the dramatizations and fiction of the movie. It includes many of Fossey's own letters and entries in her journals.

A new book published in 2005 by National Geographicmarker in the United Statesmarker and Palazzo Editions in the United Kingdommarker as No One Loved Gorillas More, written by Camilla de la Bedoyere, features for the first time Fossey's story told through the letters she wrote to her family and friends. The book was published to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of her death, and includes many of Bob Campbell's previously unpublished photographs.

In 2006, Gorilla Dreams: The Legacy of Dian Fossey was published, written by the investigative journalist Georgianne Nienaber. Although Fossey’s death is officially unsolved, recently released documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, as well as testimony from the International War Crimes Tribunal proceedings, offer new suspects, motives, and opportunities. Every fact about Fossey’s life is meticulously annotated. However, the setting of her conversations with the murdered gorillas is obviously fictional, yet steeped in Rwandan tradition.

More recently, the Kentucky Opera Visions Program, in Louisvillemarker, has written an opera about Fossey. The opera, entitled Nyiramachabelli, premiered on May 23, 2006.

A book called the Dark Romance of Dian Fossey was published in 1989 and compares the story of Fossey with versions as seen by others. However, much of the book is uncited and it repeats the salacious and racist stories created by her detractors. Rosamond Carr, former head of the orphanage in Gisenyi who saved the lives of more than a thousand children and who knew Fossey, states in her biography (Land of a Thousand Hills) that the "Dark Romance" book was based on plain lies, just as the article which preceded it and proved to be particularly damaging{7} For instance, the book claims that Fossey became a racist because, as stated in the book, she was gang-raped by Rwandan soldiers - an event that Fossey and her friends repeatedly and vehemently denied.

She is also prominently featured in a book by the Vanity Fair journalist Alex Shoumatoff called African Madness. Rosamond Carr was equally dismissive of that book's presentation of facts.

Film biography

Universal Studios bought the film rights to Gorillas in the Mist from Fossey in 1985, and Warner Bros. Studios bought the rights to the Hayes article, despite its having been severely criticized by Rosamond Carr. As a result of a legal battle between the two studios, a co-production was arranged.

Portions of Gorillas in the Mist and the Hayes article were adapted for Gorillas in the Mist: The Story of Dian Fossey (1988), starring Sigourney Weaver. The book had covered Fossey's scientific career in great detail and omitted material on her personal life, such as her affair with photographer Bob Campbell. In the film, however, the affair with Campbell (played by Bryan Brown) formed a major subplot.

The Hayes article had portrayed Fossey as a woman completely obsessed with "her" gorillas, who would stop at nothing to protect them. And indeed the film included a fictitious scene in which Fossey orchestrated the mock hanging of a poacher, and another where she burned poachers' huts. It also introduced fictional characters, such as the animal trader Van Vecten, and changed the names of Fossey's students.

After making Gorillas in the Mist, Weaver became a supporter of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, and is now its Honorary Chair.


  • "When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future."

Written works

  • Dian Fossey: Gorillas in the Mist, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983
  • "An amiable giant: Fuertes's gorilla", Living Bird Quarterly 1(summer): 21–22, 1982
  • "Mountain gorilla research, 1974", Nat. Geogr. Soc. Res. Reps. 14: 243–258, 1982
  • "The imperiled mountain gorilla", National Geographic 159: 501–523, 1981
  • "Mountain gorilla research, 1971–1972", Nat. Geogr. Soc. Res. Reps. 1971 Projects, 12: 237–255, 1980
  • "Development of the mountain gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei) through the first thirty-six months", in The Great Apes 139–186 (D.A. Hamburg & E.R. McCown eds., Benjamin-Cummings), 1979
  • "Mountain gorilla research, 1969–1970", Nat. Geogr. Soc. Res. Reps. 1969 Projects, 11: 173–176, 1978
  • "His name was Digit", Int. Primate Protection League (IPPL) 5(2): 1–7, 1978
  • The behaviour of the mountain gorilla, Ph.D. diss. Cambridge University, 1976
  • "Observations on the home range of one group of mountain gorillas (Gorilla gorilla beringei)", Anim. Behav. 22: 568–581, 1974
  • "Vocalizations of the mountain gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei)", Anim. Behav. 20: 36-531972
  • "Living with mountain gorillas", in The Marvels of Animal Behavior 208–229 (T.B. Allen ed., National Geographic Society), 1972
  • "More years with mountain gorillas", Nat. Geogr. 140: 574–585, 1971
  • "Making friends with mountain gorillas", Nat. Geogr. 137: 48–67, 1970
  • D. Fossey & A.H. Harcourt: "Feeding ecology of free-ranging mountain gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei)", in Primate Ecology: Studies of Feeding and Ranging Behaviour in Lemurs, Monkeys and Apes 415–447 (T.H. Clutton-Brock ed., Academic Press), 1977

See also


  1. Current Biography, Jill Kadetsky, 1991, p. 121
  2. About Dian Fossey - Info about the Life of Dian Fossey - DFGFI
  3. Mowat, Farley. Woman in the Mists: The Story of Dian Fossey and the Mountain Gorillas of Africa. Warner Books, 1987.
  4. Fossey, Dian : Gorillas in the Mist. 1983
  5. Carr, Rosamond. Land of a Thousand Hills. Blackstone, 2002.
  6. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International

External links

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