Dian Fossey born on January 16th 1932 and died in December 26th 1985 was an amazing zoologist, anthropologist and a primatologist from America. She was the one who undertook a far reaching study about Mountain gorillas and their groups over a period of 18 years. She kept studying them daily and in their own mountain forests of Rwanda. It is all told in her 1983 book, Gorillas in the mist, which further stresses her scientific study of the gorillas at Karisoke Research Center with her own personal story and it was later on adapted into a 1988 film of the very same name. She was initially sent and encouraged by anthropologist Louis Leakey to study these great apes in their natural environments.
Following her mother’s divorce with her father, Fossey was raised with no serious parental love and care so she found her love and comfort with the animals. She started her animal love with horse raiding at the age of six years before she proceeded to work on a farm with her hospital friend after her graduation in Occupational Therapy with her degree from San Jose state college in the year 1954.
Fossey turned down an offer to join the Henrys on an African tour due to lack of finance and in 1963 she decided to borrow $8,000, took out her savings and visited Africa. While in Africa she met the Leakey’s at Olduvai Gorge who were operating anthropological research at the place in Tanzania. With the Leakey’s support, Dian found her way to the Democratic republic of Congo where she established her camp at Kabara so as to begin her study and research about mountain gorillas.
Dian Fossey escaped from Congo in the period of 1967 after soldiers arriving at her camp and got her locked up in Rumangabo for two weeks. Her escape was through bribery to Walter Baumgartel’s Travelers Rest Hotel in Kisoro –Uganda. Dian got advice from Leakey so she gave up going back to Congo and she started her research center on the Rwandan side of the Virunga where she established her camp at a place between Mountain Karisimbi and Visoke, which later was known as Karisoke after joining the two names, Karisimbi and Visoke.
She officially founded the Karisoke Research Center on September 24, 1967; it was a remote rainforest camp in Ruhengeri province in the saddle of the two Volcanoes (Visoke and Karisimbi) at an elevation of around 9,800 ft up Mount Visoke and also covering an area of 25 sqkm. Contrasting to the mountain gorillas in Cong, the Rwandan mountain gorillas had never been habituated and they only knew humans for poaching so they feared the human presence which made it very tough for Dian to study them at a close distance. She later found a solution by starting up anti-poaching campaigns with a team of some of her staff; these would carry out patrols in the way of rescuing some of the gorillas especially those whose parents had been killed. The gorillas in her study area got protection while those on the other western side of the park continued to suffer the troubles of poachers.
Fossey became known by locals as Nyirmachabelli (Nyiramacibiri) which was roughly translated to “a woman, one who lives lonely on the top of the Mountain”. However her work continued to go on well and she finally found the favor and friendship with the mountain gorillas whereby she befriended a silverback known as Digit. Digit was shot in 1978 while he was trying to protect a baby gorilla known as Kweli from the poachers and this was a very big blow to Dian’s heart.
After burying Digit her favorite mountain gorilla at the camp in her Research center, Dian increased her patrol efforts whereby she attracted the public sympathy and they started supporting her internationally, big bodies like Fauna Preservation Society, the Wildlife Fund, and Mountain Gorilla Project among others.
Dian’s efforts to protect Gorillas led to arrest of many poachers and some were jailed, but later in 1985, she was murdered in her own cabin (tent) at her research center institute by unknown murders, she was discovered murdered lying in a pond of blood in the untimely morning of December 27, 1985.
Dian Fossey is buried at Karisoke, in a site that she had constructed for her deceased gorilla friends. She is buried in the grave yard of the gorillas next to Digit her favorite and near other gorillas that were killed by poachers. Her memorial services were held in New York, Washington and in California.
After her death, Dian Fossey’s Digit Fund in the United States was later renamed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund international and her Karisoke Research Center is operated by this Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, they are continuing gorilla monitoring and protection exercise that she started.
As you make your wildlife safari to Rwanda, please go and Hike the Dian Fossey grave just as a tribute to her great work of protecting the Volcanoes mountain Gorillas which are still existing up to date due to her efforts.