Fossey, Dian

views updated Jun 27 2018


(b. San Francisco, California, 16 January 1932; d. Karisoke, Rwanda, 26 December 1985),

primatology, primate conservation.

Significantly extending and expanding the work of George Schaller, Fossey conducted long-term field studies of gorilla behavior and passionately advocated for gorilla conservation. Along with Jane Goodall and Biruté Galdikas, Fossey attracted extensive media coverage for her primate field studies and thus significantly shaped public understanding of primatology and primate conservation.

Dian Fossey and L. S. B. Leakey . Dian Fossey, daughter of George and Kitty Fossey, was passionate about wildlife throughout her childhood. She began her career in the field of primatology in 1967 through an unorthodox route. After meeting Fossey in 1963 and again in 1966, L. S. B. Leakey began to discuss with her the possibility of studying primates in the wild. During these discussions, Leakey commented that it was risky for a person to have an appendix intact when embarking on a long field study. This comment was not meant seriously. By this time, Leakey’s choice of Jane Goodall, a woman without formal scientific training, for a field study of chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania, had already shown signs of success, and he agreed to send Fossey to the Parc des Virungas in Zaire to study mountain gorillas.

Like Goodall, Fossey embarked on her field study without a formal science degree. Fossey had failed to gain a degree in veterinary medicine from the University of California at Davis and transferred to San Jose College where she gained a BA degree in physical therapy in 1954. This initial lack of scientific training did not concern Leakey, who believed women uniquely possessed the patience required for long-term field studies and that those without formal scientific training could combine this patience with a lack of bias in terms of their observation of primate behavior.

Once Fossey arrived in Zaire in 1967, her courage and determination helped her survive. Her study of existing primatological literature and relationships with indigenous peoples taught her how to track and observe gorillas. Fossey first studied gorillas in Kabara in the Parc des Virungas, Zaire, for over six months in 1967. Following this experience, she established the Karisoke Research Center in the Parc des Volcans, Rwanda. She spent almost her entire remaining life studying gorillas in Karisoke, leaving only to gain her PhD in 1976 from Cambridge University under the guidance of ethologist Robert A. Hinde and again in 1980 to briefly teach at Cornell University. She was murdered in Karisoke in 1985.

Field Methods . As recounted in Fossey’s 1983 book, Gorillas in the Mist, preparations for the field included reading existing primatological literature and studying Swahili. Leakey ensured financial support for the research by securing funds from the Wilkie Foundation and helped to arrange for Fossey to spend two days with Jane Goodall at the Gombe Stream Research Center where Fossey observed methods of data collection and the logistical arrangements required for long-term field research. However, by far the most significant influences on the methods adopted by Fossey were George Schaller and indigenous trackers such as Sanwekwe, Nemeye, and Rwelekana.

Schaller of the University of Wisconsin had studied gorilla behavior in Parc Albert in the Virunga Volcanoes between 1959 and 1960. This was the same site, albeit later renamed, that was used by Fossey in the initial months of her study. After a series of failed attempts to observe gorillas in other locations, Schaller selected this site due to the height and density of the vegetation which made conditions “ideal” for prolonged observation of gorilla behavior.

Together with John Emlen from the University of Wisconsin, and their wives, Schaller shattered assumptions about the impossibility of making prolonged scientific observations of gorillas in the wild by successfully observing gorilla behavior for over four hundred and fifty hours. Indigenous peoples provided instruction to Schaller and Emlen concerning how to track gorillas by observing bends in blades of grass, imprints in the soil, and scat. Once able to track gorillas, they made regular observations of certain groups. This consistent observation resulted in six groups becoming habituated, meaning their behavior was deemed essentially unaffected by the presence of the observer. Fossey identified at least some of these habituated gorilla groups as the subjects of her own field research while in Kabara in 1967.

Fossey used similar methods to Schaller in terms of tracking and observing gorillas. She also adopted Schaller’s technique of identifying individuals according to sketches of their nose prints. The sheer length of Fossey’s field study and her desire to be accepted by the gorillas that composed her study groups led to her application of mimicry to habituate the gorillas. Fossey would mimic vocalizations, eating, and grooming behaviors as part of her habituation of gorillas and her long-term study of their behaviors. She would, for example, make “contentment vocalizations” and also beat her chest. Although not entirely new, Fossey applied the imitation of gorilla behaviors more extensively than past researchers, who had generally restricted themselves to the imitation of vocalizations. Descriptions of this imitation method formed a central part of her popular National Geographic articles, ensuring that Fossey would become well known for enabling prolonged observation of gorillas by adopting their behaviors.

Her study of gorilla behavior from 1967 to 1985 also involved extensive use of indigenous peoples and indigenous knowledge. Like Schaller and others, Fossey hired local people as trackers and guides. As the length of her field study extended and her involvement in conservation developed, local people became increasingly necessary for the logistic running of the research site and patrolling of the park to deter poachers. Despite these contributions to primate conservation, it would be the role of indigenous peoples as the hunters, rather than protectors, of gorillas that would be most highlighted by the popular articles and books written by, and about, Fossey. Any form of indigenous assistance in Fossey’s long-term field research is barely identifiable in her PhD dissertation and while certain individuals are mentioned for the help they provided to Fossey

in her well-read 1983 book, Gorillas in the Mist, the local people in general are personified as poachers.

This negative depiction of Africa and Africans in contrast to Fossey’s positive contributions to gorilla conservation is located by historian James Krasner within the context of the 1970s and 1980s, a time in which Krasner and others believe Africa continued to be commonly viewed as uncivilized. Krasner argues that, “Fossey’s appeal to the reader is‖constructed along deeply conservative lines: Africa is a dark and dangerous place; gorillas are threatened because they live in Africa; white people must save the gorillas by carrying enlightened ideas about animal preservation into the darkness, thus saving the animals from the primitive natives and from themselves” (Krasner, 1997, pp. 240–241). Such discussion of representations of, and by, Fossey in popular culture reveals much about the interaction between science, the media, and the public. However, the contributions she made to the science of primatology have received less historical attention.

Intellectual Contributions . Fossey’s research both built upon existing knowledge of gorilla behavior and extensively extended it. While Fossey’s own research benefited from the site location and methodology of Schaller and Emlen’s collaborative field study of 1959–1960, for example, Fossey’s work also directly continued, and in some cases revised, the conclusions set forth in Schaller’s publications. In his 1963 book, The Mountain Gorilla, Schaller presented basic and previously unknown information concerning gorillas in the wild. Fossey’s PhD dissertation, based on her work in Parc des Virungas, Zaire, and Parc des Volcans, Rwanda, discusses Schaller’s conclusions in some depth, providing answers to questions he raised concerning concepts such as immigration and emigration and particularly the ways in which females transfer between groups.

Such questions could not be answered without the kind of long-term primate field study that Fossey provided. Through close study of a number of habituated groups, Fossey identified “home groups” as those composed of individuals born into cohesive and relatively stable groups. In contrast, “transfer groups” were formed by a female joining a silverback male and were relatively unstable. It was apparently always the females, rather than the males, that would transfer to a different group. As demonstrated by Fossey’s 1984 article, these prolonged observations of group interaction would contribute to the growing understanding of primate reproductive behavior, including the phenomenon of infanticide, which emerged during the 1980s.

Fossey’s extensive observation of gorillas, including the observation of individual gorillas from birth, also provided the evidence needed to revise Schaller’s age/sex classification system. Schaller had relied on captive observations, and Fossey determined that he had generally under-aged individuals. Furthermore, she extended the potential life expectancy of gorillas in the wild to sixty years, whereas Schaller had estimated that wild gorillas would live around thirty years, an assumption again based on captive studies. Schaller had also provided extensive verbal descriptions of gorilla vocalizations but made few recordings of these vocalizations because he had only limited access to a tape recorder. Fossey, however, was able to conduct a study of gorilla vocalizations with recordings made from November 1968 to December 1969. For the first time, spectrographs were made of gorilla vocalizations, and the estimated number of distinct gorilla vocalizations was reduced from the twenty-one identified by Schaller to sixteen or seventeen.

Primate Conservation . Fossey also continued Schaller’s work of conducting a census of gorillas in order to track population dynamics. Working with Alexander Harcourt, Kelly Stewart, and Alan Goodall (no relation to Jane Goodall), she conducted censuses at several points during the 1970s and again in 1981. These censuses demonstrated that the gorilla population in the Parc des Volcans was drastically declining. Encroachment on gorilla habitat and poaching were central reasons for this decline, and Fossey went on to dedicate the rest of her life to protecting the gorillas of the Virunga Volcanoes.

Fossey’s pursuit of what she termed “active conservation” has been seen by some as relatively distinct from her science and by others as an extension of her methodology. In the beginning, Fossey’s interest in studying gorillas was motivated by her hope that through scientific research humans would learn to better protect gorillas. However, this hope faded during the course of her time in Africa and was replaced by an emphasis on conservation at the cost, some have argued, of her scientific activity. The form of conservation Fossey would come to advocate was what Donna Haraway called “anarchist direct action” (1989, p. 265). Rather than pursue education and tourism as means to improve gorilla survival in the wild, Fossey established patrols to prevent poaching and used tactics of imprisonment and physical punishment when poachers were caught. Over time, the description of these conservation activities became increasingly central in her popular publications. The death of Digit, a gorilla that Fossey was particularly attached to, at the hands of poachers came to personify the need for gorilla conservation. His beheaded body was pictured in National Geographic and Gorillas in the Mist, and Fossey honored him by forming the Digit Fund in 1978. This organization would go on to become the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, a conservation group that continued into the early 2000s to raise money and organize efforts to protect gorillas.

It is perhaps all too easy to emphasize Fossey’s contribution to primate conservation at the expense of discussion of her intellectual contributions to the science of primatology. Mary Ann McClure has sought to characterize Fossey’s conservation and science, and that of other female primatologists such as Jane Goodall, as one in which the formation of caring relationships with the primates studied formed the core of their science. Thus, rather than defining science on the basis of detachment and objectivity, McClure understands the form of primatology practiced by Fossey as one based on connection. This argument provides a refreshing perspective that contrasts with the more common interpretation of Fossey and her methods, namely that by imitating gorilla behavior and becoming intensely emotionally invested in gorilla society Fossey sought to become one of them so to speak, and, in turn abandoned the science of primatology for conservation.

Fossey’s at times unorthodox methods, including her punishment of poachers and emotional connection with the gorillas she studied, and her long since unsolved murder in 1985 while in Rwanda have led to much public discussion of her private life. She has been the subject of articles in magazines from National Geographic to Vogue and of films on the small and large screen. As such, both directly and indirectly, Fossey has been a significant force in shaping popular understanding of primatology. Particularly powerful is the way in which she created a popular consciousness for the plight of wild gorillas and their need for protection. Thus, as Fossey’s legacy is reflected upon, it is clear that she significantly contributed both to science and conservation. Primatology benefited from her ability to endure many years of fieldwork and in turn reveal new knowledge concerning gorilla behavior, while primate conservation gained great momentum from the combination of Fossey’s bravery and ability to attract and hold the public’s attention.



“Making Friends with Mountain Gorillas.” National Geographic 137 (1970): 48–67.

“More Years with Mountain Gorillas.” National Geographic 140 (1971): 574–585.

“Living with Mountain Gorillas.” In The Marvels of Animal Behavior, edited by T. B. Allen. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1972.

“Vocalizations of the Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei).” Animal Behaviour 20 (1972): 36–53.

“Observation of the Home Range of One Group of Mountain Gorillas (Gorilla gorilla beringei).” Animal Behaviour 22 (1974): 568–581.

“The Behaviour of the Mountain Gorilla.” PhD diss., Cambridge University, 1976.

“A Grim Struggle for Survival: The Imperiled Mountain Gorilla.” National Geographic 159 (1981): 501–523.

Gorillas in the Mist. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983.

“Infanticide in Mountain Gorillas (Gorilla gorilla beringei) with Comparative Notes on Chimpanzees.” In Infanticide: Comparative and Evolutionary Perspectives, edited by Glenn Hausfater and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. New York: Aldine, 1984.

“His Name Was Digit.” International Primate Protection League Newsletter 13 (1986): 10–15.


Haraway, Donna. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Krasner, James. “‘Ape Ladies’ and Cultural Politics: Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas.” In Natural Eloquence: Women Reinscribe Science, edited by Barbara T. Gates and Ann B. Shteir. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.

McClure, Mary Ann. “A Passion to Connect: The Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Gladikas.” Research in Philosophy and Technology 16 (1997): 49–60.

Montgomery, Sy. Walking with the Great Apes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991.

Morell, Virginia. “Called ‘Trimates,’ Three Bold Women Shaped Their Field.” Science260, no. 5106 (April 1993): 420–425.

Mowat, Farley. Woman in the Mists. New York: Farley Mowat Limited, 1987.

Schaller, George B. The Mountain Gorilla: Ecology and Behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1963.

———. The Year of the Gorilla. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964. Reprinted with a new forward. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Strum, Shirley C., and Linda Marie Fedigan, eds. Primate Encounters: Models of Science, Gender and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Georgina M. Montgomery

Fossey, Dian

views updated Jun 08 2018


(b. 16 January 1932 in Fairfax, California; d. 24 December 1985 in Ruhengeri, Rwanda), primatologist and conservationist who greatly advanced knowledge of the mountain gorilla.

Fossey was the only child of George Fossey III and Kitty Fossey. George, a frustrated insurance salesman, left when Fossey was a child. After a divorce Kitty married Richard Price, a contractor. By all accounts Fossey seems to have had a relatively unhappy childhood and never completely reconciled with her mother or her stepfather. After graduating from high school she enrolled at the University of California, Davis, in 1950 to study veterinary medicine. Doing poorly in the science courses, she dropped out in her second year. Returning to college to study occupational therapy, she graduated with a B.A. from San Jose State University in 1954.

Eager to put space between her and her tense family life, Fossey took a position at Kosair Crippled Children's Hospital, in Louisville, Kentucky. There she became friends with Mary White Henry, secretary to the hospital director. The Henry family provided her with inroads into Louisville society, although she seemed happiest with her patients and around animals. Through the Henrys she met some young African planters and became fascinated with that continent. George Schaller's book The Mountain Gorilla: Ecology and Behavior (1963) introduced her to the mountain gorilla.

Determined to visit Africa, Fossey mortgaged her future salary to the hospital. In 1963, in Kenya, she met the famed anthropologist Louis Leakey. When Fossey expressed an interest in gorillas, he suggested she consider a long-term study of those little-known primates (the British ethologist Jane Goodall was then working with chimpanzees).

Fossey tried to get stories of her trip published in popular magazines, and finally the Louisville Courier-Journal accepted three articles. In 1966 she met Leakey again when he gave a lecture in Louisville. Leakey remembered their previous meeting (possibly because, ill from the pain of a sprained ankle, she had vomited on one of his fossils) and again raised the possibility of a long-term study, promising to find financial support.

After support was arranged from the Wilkie Foundation (and later from the National Geographic Society), Fossey quit her job and arrived at Kababa, in Zaire, in January 1967. She made her first sighting of gorillas later that month. Although her work progressed well, she had some difficulties with camp workers and with herders and poachers in the area. By July the political situation in Zaire had deteriorated so badly that she was detained on more than one occasion, ultimately fleeing to Rwanda. Later stories of her mistreatment and possible rape seem to have been exaggerations.

With Leakey's approval, Fossey transferred her work to Karisoke, just across the mountains from Kababa. By September the new center was established and her work progressed rapidly throughout the next year. From the start she was determined to end herding and poaching in the park. For about five months, early in 1968, she did little active research as she nursed two baby gorillas that had been injured in being captured for a German zoo.

After a year at Karisoke, Fossey returned to the United States, stopping on the way in Cambridge, England, to arrange for doctoral studies under the primate specialist Robert Hinde. Returning to Africa after three months at Cambridge, she made international headlines, including a cover story in National Geographic.

At the same time her personal life grew increasingly complicated. By December 1971 she had had an abortion to terminate a pregnancy that resulted from an affair with a research student. When that relationship began to sour Fossey increasingly turned to alcohol. In addition, her interaction with most of the students who worked at Karisoke was strained. She also began to develop less-than-friendly relations with the park directors and much of the local population (the African camp workers seem to have been an exception). On one occasion, determined to keep herders out of the park, she kidnapped a cow. In 1973 she began shooting cattle.

In the early years of the 1970s, she made occasional lecture trips and worked on her doctorate. In 1976 she earned her Ph.D. in primatology from Cambridge and also participated in a primate symposium with Goodall and Birute Galdikas, a Canadian primatologist who had been chosen by Leakey to conduct a study of orangutans in Borneo.

By this time Fossey's work in Africa as a scientist seems to have declined considerably. Part of the decline was due to her health; she suffered from various allergies, asthma (although she continued to smoke), broken bones because of calcium loss, an irregular heartbeat, and eye problems. At times she had to use an oxygen inhaler. Nevertheless, she increased her battles against poachers. On one foray she burned the possessions of a poacher and kidnapped a child. As a result she was spending less time in the field. Her notoriety increased when poachers killed Digit, one of her study gorillas. She used his death to raise funds for antipoaching patrols, though most of the funds were channeled to organizations for which she had little sympathy.

In 1980 Fossey left Africa to take a year-long position at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. While there she worked on her book, Gorillas in the Mist, which was ultimately published in 1983. Her year in the United States was punctuated by a pair of symposiums with the other two "primate ladies" (Goodall and Galdikas) and the publication of some scientific papers. All this while, though, she was in torment about Karisoke, which was under the direction of a former student with whom she had strong disagreements.

Her final years saw little scientific advancement. By now she was persona non grata with park authorities, many conservation groups, and most of her former students. Her health continued to decline, and research seemed far less important than her antipoaching patrols. Because gorilla tourism had brought money to impoverished Rwanda, there were moves to keep her out of the country. When at Karisoke she was seldom able to visit the gorillas.

On Christmas Eve of 1985 Fossey was murdered in her cabin at the Karisoke Research Center. Eventually, Wayne McGuire (her latest student) and Emmanuel Rwelekana (a tracker she had fired) were charged with the murder. McGuire had returned to the United States but was convicted of her killing in absentia. Rwelekana committed suicide while awaiting trial. Many observers were dissatisfied with the result of the investigation and trial, believing that she was killed by poachers, herders, or Rwandan officials who wanted her out of the country. On 31 December 1985 Fossey was buried next to the gorilla graveyard she had established at Karisoke.

Fossey's career as a scientist was relatively short, yet in that time she greatly increased the world's knowledge of the largest primate and eradicated their false reputation for fierceness. She triggered international sympathy for endangered animals in Africa and spurred conservation efforts. The strategy of ecotourism as a source of national wealth developed from her popular writings. Yet her personal life remains shrouded in mist, much like her favorite study subjects.

Fossey's own account of her life with mountain gorillas is in Gorillas in the Mist (1983), which was the basis of a 1988 film. Though mawkish and sentimental, the biography by Farley Mowat, Woman in the Mists (1987), is quite usable. Less critical is the section on Fossey in Bettyann Kevles, Watching the Wild Apes (1976). Although also sympathetic, Harold T. P. Hayes, The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey (1990), is more aware of some of the more controversial aspects of her life. There is a section on Fossey's work and death in Alex Shoumatoff, African Madness (1988). National Geographic published accounts of her work in "More Years with Mountain Gorillas" (Oct. 1971) and "The Imperiled Mountain Gorilla" (Apr. 1981). Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times (both 29 Dec. 1985) and in the Chicago Tribune (30 Dec. 1985).

Art Barbeau

Dian Fossey

views updated May 29 2018

Dian Fossey

Dian Fossey (1932-1985) was the world's leading authority on the mountain gorilla before her murder, probably at the hands of poachers, in December of 1985.

Dian Fossey's short life was characterized in equal parts by tragedy, controversy, and extraordinary courage and dedication to the animals she made her life work. That dedication drew her back to Africa over and over despite broken bones, failing health, and threats to her life. All and all, she spent 18 years studying the mountain gorillas and working for their survival as a species.

An unlikely chain of circumstances led Fossey to study the mountain gorilla and to her eventual demise high in the fog enshrouded mountains of eastern Africa. Born in San Francisco on January 16, 1932, Fossey was fascinated with animals from an early age. She entered the University of California at Davis to study pre-veterinary medicine but found it difficult to master courses in chemistry and physics. Instead she completed a B.A. in 1954 from San Jose State University in occupational therapy. In 1956 she took a job at Kosair Crippled Children's Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, where she could pursue her interest in horses during her free time.

In 1963 Fossey obtained a bank loan for $8,000, took a leave from her job as a physical therapist, and went to Africa to seek out paleontologist Louis Leakey, who had mentoredJane Goodall in her pioneering work with chimpanzees. She hoped that Leakey could help her find a job studying gorillas. Later in her life Fossey explained this change in her life course by saying that she felt extraordinarily drawn to Africa and particularly to the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and Zaire (now Congo). This interest was fueled in part by reading the work of George Schaller, who had spent 1959 doing the first comprehensive study of these animals.

Fossey appeared at Leakey's dig site at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania without an invitation. He mistook her for a tourist and charged a fee to view the excavation. Despite this inauspicious beginning, Fossey clearly made an impression. Nearly six feet tall, with long black hair and a husky voice—the result of chain smoking—she must have been a startling apparition. While walking through the site, she tripped and fell, breaking her ankle and a newly excavated fossil in the process. Leakey's wife Mary bound up her ankle and she proceeded onwards to the mountains of Zaire (now Congo), where she caught her first glimpse of the mountain gorilla.

Her funds exhausted, Fossey returned to Louisville and to her job. In 1966 it was Leakey who sought her out. He wanted her to study the gorillas on a long-term basis and had found a patron who would support the research. Leakey was interested in studies of primates because he believed their behavior would shed light on the behavior of the early hominids whose fossilized bones he was excavating at Olduvai Gorge. He believed that Fossey would be an ideal person to carry out the study because of her intense interest and because he thought that women were more patient and better observers than men and, therefore, made better naturalists.

Fossey accepted Leakey's invitation eagerly. Since she had no formal training she made a brief stop at Jane Goodall's research center at Gombe to learn Goodall's revolutionary methods of fieldwork and data collection. She then proceeded onward to Schaller's old camp in Congo.

The gorillas that Fossey was to study inhabit a narrow strip of forest that covers the sides of several extinct volcanoes on the borders between Rwanda, Congo, and Uganda. Much of their habitat is rain forest at an altitude of 10,000 feet or more. The mountain gorillas can be distinguished from other types of gorillas partly by their adaptions to the climate and altitude: thick coats, broad chests, and large hands and feet. Mature males stand between five and six feet when upright and far outweigh a human being of equivalent size.

Fossey's research in Congo was interrupted July 10, 1967, when she was held for two weeks by soldiers. After escaping from her captors, she relocated to the Rwanda side of the mountains in the Parc National des Vulcans. This would become the Karasoke Research Center where she would carry out her work for the next 17 years.

At Karasoke Fossey studied 51 gorillas in four relatively stable groups. Despite their menacing appearance, Fossey found the gorillas to be quite shy and retiring. She gained their trust through quiet and patient observation and by imitating the gorillas' behavior until she could sit amongst them and could move about or touch the animals without frightening them.

When Fossey first began her research, the number of these gorillas was less than 500 and rapidly diminishing due to the encroachment of farmers and predation from poachers. She was particularly distressed by the practice of killing an entire group of adult gorillas in order to obtain young gorillas to be sold to zoos. In 1978, after the death of Digit, one of her most beloved silverback males, she began taking up unconventional means to protect the gorillas from poachers and from encroaching cattle farmers. She held poachers prisoner, torturing them or frightening them or kidnapping their children, with the idea that this would give them a sense of what gorillas were experiencing at their hands.

On December 24, 1985, Fossey was killed in her cabin at Karasoke, her skull split by a panga, the type of large knife used by poachers. Her murderer has not been identified.

Further Reading

Fossey has described her own work in Gorillas in the Mist (1983).A film of the same name was released in 1988 starring Sigourney Weaver. Biographical information can be found in Farley Mowat's Woman in the Mists (1987), Sy Montgomery's Walking with the Great Apes (1991), and Donna Haraway's Primate Visions (1989). Fossey also wrote a number of articles for National Geographic Magazine. Additional information on gorillas can be found in Allan Goodall's The Wandering Gorillas (1979) and Michael Nichols' Struggle for Survival in the Virungas (1989). □

Dian Fossey

views updated May 11 2018

Dian Fossey


American Zoologist

American zoologist Dian Fossey is best known for her field studies of mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda and Zaire, which served to dispel many myths about the violent and aggressive nature of gorillas. Her dedicated work combined research and conservation to ensure the survival of these elusive and endangered animals.

Born in San Francisco, Fossey graduated from San Jose State College in 1954 with a degree in occupational therapy; she then worked at a children's hospital in Kentucky for several years. During this time she read and studied all that she could about African primates. Inspired by the writings of American zoologist George B. Schaller, including Life of the Gorilla, Fossey traveled to Africa on holiday in 1963.

In letters home, she described her trip in colorful detail. She observed mountain gorillas in their home habitat, the mist-shrouded volcanoes in central Africa. It was there that she met British anthropologist Louis Leakey (1903-1972). Leakey, believing that studies of great apes would shed light on the subject of human evolution, encouraged Fossey to undertake a long-term field study of gorillas. He felt that the gorilla study, in conjunction with the studies of chimpanzees by Jane Goodall (1934- ), would generate data supporting an evolutionary link between humans and primates.

Although Fossey had no formal training in animal behavior or zoology, Leakey felt that her excitement and interest in the gorillas would be an important and valuable asset. Fossey returned to the United States and, in 1966, resigned from her job, sold her possessions, and traveled to Rwanda's Virunga Mountains, the last bastion of the endangered mountain gorilla. Upon her arrival, Goodall gave Fossey a two-day crash course in data collection and observation methods. She was then on her own, following gorillas up and down the steep mountainous terrain. The local people called her "the woman who lives alone in the mountains."

For the next 22 years, Fossey was an astute and patient observer of gorilla behavior. Her field methods were unorthodox, gentle, and simple. She quietly and sensitively allowed the gorillas to accept her into their world. Unarmed, she sat within a few feet of them every day for years. She knew each individual in her study area by the names she had given them, and came to regard the gorillas as gentle, social animals, not violent and aggressive as was popularly thought at the time. Fossey received a Ph.D. in zoology from Cambridge University in 1974 on the basis of her fieldwork.

Fossey established Karisoke Research Center for gorilla research and conservation in 1967. She understood that the survival and well-being of the mountain gorillas was dependent on their human neighbors. Poaching and the export trade of gorilla infants for zoos and medical research were taking a serious toll on the gorilla population. Research was not enough, she asserted. Without a strong conservation program in place, the gorilla population would become unable to survive.

Fossey worked diligently to encourage the formation of National Parks to protect the gorillas and their habitat. She attempted to work with the local people to gain support for protecting the gorillas. Her position, however, was not popular and, in 1985, she was found murdered at her cabin at Karisoke. Some authorities believe she was murdered in retaliation for her efforts to stop the poaching of gorillas and other animals in Africa. Her murder has yet to be solved.

Fossey's book, Gorillas in the Mist (1983), recounts observations from her years of field research. The book was subsequently made into a popular movie starring Sigourney Weaver, introducing millions of viewers to the plight of the mountain gorilla.

Due largely to Fossey's research and conservation work, mountain gorillas are now protected by the government of Rwanda and by the international conservation and scientific communities.


Fossey, Dian

views updated May 21 2018

Fossey, Dian

American Primatologist 1932-1985

Dian Fossey, born in 1932, was a celebrated mountain gorilla researcher. Fossey initially dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, but her science grades prevented her from pursuing that goal. A fairly antisocial person, she got along well with children and animals as an occupational therapy intern before making her way to Africa at the age of thirty-one. There she was immediately captivated, and she became acquainted with renowned anthropologist Louis Leakey, who was engaged in research. Impressed with her attitude, Leakey sent her to eastern Congo in 1966, and Africa became the setting of her life's work.

Fossey enjoyed working in Africa despite horrifying conditions. Shortly after her arrival in the Republic of Congo (later Zaire), the country became embroiled in civil war, and she later escaped to Rwanda. Despite the tense political situation and other extreme difficulties (poachers, disease, lack of funding, and so on), Fossey vigorously protected her subjects of choice, mountain gorillas. She quickly got closer to them than other researchers and managed to become accepted among them. Although some critics argued that her methodology was unscientific, saying it was unquantifiable, Fossey logged thousands of contact hours and observations, frequently finding new groups of animals to work with.

Fossey also worked to keep the gorillas' habitat intact. Frequent invasions by poachers and cattle herdsmen destroyed what little mountain gorilla habitat remained. Fiercely independent, she was unwilling to compromise her activities or research methods despite the conflicting opinions of others.

In 1973, Fossey left Africa to begin her graduate studies at Cambridge. After earning her Ph.D in 1976, she was a visiting professor at Cornell University from 1980 to 1982. She also took this time to write Gorillas in the Mist, a firsthand account of her experiences. It became an enormously popular book although it was less well received by other primatologists. She returned to Africa in 1983, convinced that her methods of poaching prevention would best serve the gorilla population.

In 1985, Fossey was murdered, most likely by poachers. Since her death, there have been few poaching incidents and the mountain gorilla population has been growing. Fossey brought the plight of the mountain gorilla to public consciousness and left behind the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund for their protection.

see also Primates.

Ian Quigley


Hayes, Harold T. P. The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.

Fossey, Dian. Gorillas in the Mist. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.

Internet Resources

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. <>.

Louis Leakey believed women were better suited than men to observe and note animal behavior because he thought women were more patient.