Twenty years ago, we lost a woman who put her reputation
and very life on the line in her quest to understand and defend
animals. Many people think of Dr. Dian Fossey more as a researcher
than a protector of the animals, but she was actually a hunt
saboteur who wasn’t afraid to take direct action to
In 1963, while on a six-week trip to Africa, Dian Fossey
met orangutan expert Dr. Biruté Galdikas and Louis
Leakey, a famous paleoanthropologist who was also a mentor
to Dr. Jane Goodall.
In 1966, Fossey moved to Africa to begin studying the mountain
gorillas. She started out in Zaire, but political upheaval
forced her to relocate. In 1967, she founded the Karisoke
Research Center at the Parc des Volcans in Rwanda. This beautiful
national park, which was under constant threat from poachers,
would be the center of the rest of her life.
To truly study the gorillas, Fossey first had to gain their
trust. She spent thousands of hours in intense observation
of these profoundly wild animals. Eventually, her efforts
paid off when an adult male gorilla touched her hand. This
touch across the species barrier marked the first, friendly
gorilla-human contact ever recorded.
Towards the beginning of her research, Fossey met a young
mountain gorilla whom she named Digit. She watched him grow,
and they were friends for 10 years—until the day Digit
was murdered by poachers.
Poachers kill mountain gorillas to sell their body parts.
The heads of these intelligent, incredibly beautiful animals
are used as wall decorations, and their hands and feet are
often turned into ashtrays.
Outraged by Digit’s death and by the failure of park
guards to protect the gorillas from poachers, Fossey decided
to take action. She started the Digit Fund (later renamed
the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund). And she also created her own
Fossey’s patrol destroyed thousands of snares and traps
and confiscated hundreds of spears, bows, and other weapons.
This work was covered by National Geographic and earned her
an international reputation as an outspoken advocate for gorillas.
Fossey returned to the United States in 1974 to obtain her
Ph.D. at Cambridge University and accepted a visiting associate
professorship at Cornell University. During this period, she
wrote the best-selling book Gorillas in the Mist, which was
later turned into a movie and ended up educating millions
of people about the plight of the endangered mountain gorillas.
But Fossey’s determination to protect the gorillas
drew her back to Rwanda, where she resumed her anti-poaching
efforts. That work earned her some ruthless enemies. On December
26, 1985, an unknown attacker entered Fossey’s cabin
and killed her, apparently by hacking her to death with a
machete as she scrambled to find her gun to protect herself.
Local authorities believed Fossey was killed by poachers,
but her death remained a mystery for 15 years.
Recently, however, Rwandan authorities accused a man named
“Mr. Z” of killing Fossey. Mr. Z is also charged
with being one of the chief architects of the 1994 Rwandan
genocide, in which almost a million people from the minority
Tutsi tribe were slaughtered by government soldiers, militias
and bands of ordinary citizens from the majority Hutu tribe.
Most victims were killed with machetes.
What’s especially disturbing about Fossey’s death
is that some people apparently feel that she got what she
deserved. The reason? She was too controversial, too determined
to protect the gorillas and totally unwilling to accept excuses
or compromise. Many felt that her tactics to stop poaching
were a bit extreme. She has also been accused of mistreating
her staff and other researchers, and some people thought she
However, it is very easy to have respect for such an incredible
woman, who went out on her own to study the mountain gorillas
and didn’t just sit back as they were being murdered.
Today, the mountain gorillas of Rwanda are still hanging
on. In fact, there are about a hundred more gorillas now than
when Fossey first began struggling to save them. While Fossey
remains a controversial figure, most observers agree on one
fact: Without her uncompromising defense of these animals,
the gorillas in the mist would be only a memory.