Hit Enter to search or Esc key to close

Dian Fossey lived with mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains for over 18 years while she was conducting her research. She was born in San Francisco, Calif in 1932 and she was raised by mother and stepfather. Dian Fossey excellent as a student and she had love for animals since her childhood. She started horseback riding lessons when she was 6 years and she earned a letter on the riding team while she was in high school.

Dian Fossey tour in Africa began in 1963 when she arrived in Kenya. Her Kenya trip included visiting Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Congo. She was guided by John Alexander, a British hunter where his planned route included visiting Tsavo National Park, Lake Manyara renowned for a huge concentration of flamingos, and Ngorongoro Crater most popular for its wildlife diversity.

She also toured the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, the archaeological site of Louis and Mary Leakey as well as Mikeno volcano in Congo. This is where DR. George Schaller conducted research on mountain gorillas in 1959. This makes Schaller the first person to carry out a reliable field study on these endangered species. It is Dr. George Schaller’s efforts that paved the way for the study that would be referred to as Dian Fossey’s life work.

In 1967, Fossey arrived at Kabara meadow, Schaller’s base in Congo’s Parc National des Virunga. After only six and a half months, political troubles forced her to move towards the border of the Rwandan sector of the Virunga Volcanoes, where she set up a camp. Making a combination of the names Karisimbi and Visoke, the two nearest volcanoes, she christened the site Karisoke, it was to become one of the longest running field studies in primatology.

Dian Fossey spent 18 years in the Virungas studying about the mountain gorillas in conditions of great difficulty. Her camp, Karisoke was at 10000feet and all provisions had to be carried out every after two weeks. She made astonishing discoveries and was blessed with a feel for individuals who were different. Her break through was to learn to identify the animals individually as she followed them in their family groups. When she knew fully about the gorilla family life unfolded before her with affection, stubbornness, jealousy, courage and caring all on display. She gave the animals names so the group 5 dominant male for instance became Beethoven and Fossey moved beyond pure science into something like rain forest social work

Fossey’s first task was to habituate gorillas to the presence of observers. This process has always been easier with mountain gorillas than western population because the thick ground vegetation makes mountain gorillas easier to track.

Following Schaller’s technique for identifying individuals, Fossey drew “nose prints” the pattern of wrinkles above gorillas’ nostrils. When she was near a group of gorillas, she dropped to her hands and knees and crawled after them, giving “belch” vocalizations and mimicking their feeding sounds. These were the methods that all researchers employed in those early years. By 1972, Fossey, with the help of newly arrived students such as Sandy Harcourt, had habituated three study groups, including the well-known Groups 4 and 5. The doors had been opened into the lives of individual gorillas whose fortunes would be tracked for decades to come. Today, researchers still observe the descendants of gorillas that Fossey first contacted. For example, the males Titus and Pablo, Ziz, Shinda, and Cantsbee silverbacks were all born in the 1970s.

Dian’s turning point

“I believe it was at this time the seed was planted in my head, even if unconsciously, that I would someday return to Africa to study the mountain gorillas” – “Gorillas in the Mist.”

A tour to Olduvai Gorge with Dr. Louis Leakey was one experience that Dian Fossey would describe as a pivotal moment in her life. When they visited the gorge, Leakey talked to Fossey about Jane Goodall’s work with Tanzania chimpanzees. He also shared his belief in the significance of long-term field studies with the great apes. He allowed her to observe the newly excavated sites during their visit at Olduvai Gorge. She was filled with excitement and slipped down a steep slope and fell onto the newly excavated dig and her ankle became broken. The impending climb that would take Fossey to the gorillas of the moon was at risk. This didn’t discourage her.

 Dian Fossey Journey to Study the Mountain Gorillas

Come face to face with mountain gorillas! Dive into the life of Dian Fossey on a gorilla safari in Africa and meet her ‘’Gorillas in the Mist’’. The rough Virunga Mountains are the beating heart of  Africa.

In the late 1960s, Rwanda’s Virunga mountains became home to one of the world’s most famous primatologists, Dian Fossey. Inspired to travel to Africa by a friend’s photographs and stories, Fossey took out a loan and made the trip in 1963. Fossey’s life, and those of Rwanda’s endangered mountain gorillas, would be changed forever. Fossey founded the Karisoke Research Center in the remote rainforests of northwest Rwanda and, for the next twenty years, devoted her life to living with and studying eight gorilla groups in the surrounding mountains.

Researcher Dian Fossey an American Zoologist primatologist and anthropologist undertook an extensive study of mountain gorilla groups over a period of 18 years drew attention to the poachers that were hunting the mountain gorillas in the Virunga Massifs was killed trying to protect the elusive gorillas. In 1967,  she made the mountain slopes of the Visoke volcano her home, to study the animals more closely. She gained the trust of animals as she copied the way they eat plants, the way they scratch themselves and she also pounds her chest and burps just like the gorillas.

Fossey revolutionized the way the world viewed gorillas. No longer were they seen as savage beasts, but rather as gentle giants not all that different from their human cousins. She was accepted by the gorillas in a way no person ever had been before. In fact, photographs showing gorillas touching her hand were the first ever recorded peaceful contact between man and gorilla. But as much as Fossey would have liked to live and conduct her research in peace, poachers constantly troubled her. She fought hard for anti-poaching measures to protect the gorillas she had come to know so well.

In 1983, Fossey published Gorillas in the Mist, a detailed look at her scientific research and how it came about. It served as the inspiration for the 1988 film of the same title. Just two years later, however, she was brutally murdered as she slept in the bedroom of her cabin. Today, Fossey’s legacy lives on, namely through the conservation efforts of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. Fossey was buried next to her favorite gorilla, Digit, not far from her research center. Tourists now have the chance to visit her tomb in remembrance of one of the most dedicated and fearless wildlife researchers in the world.

Dian Fossey and Gorilla Conservation

Dian Fossey through her gorillas in the mist largely contributed to conserving mountain gorillas from 1967 to 1984. Earlier, George Schaller in 1959 had conducted a pioneer study of these apes that paved the way for the current global attention on conservation of gorilla and their habitats.

From 1902 when gorillas were discovered by a German explorer Oscar Von Beringe to the arrival of Dian Fossey in Rwanda during the 1960’s, the most extensive poaching and habitat loss of mountain gorillas occurred.

Dian Fossey made discoveries about gorillas including how females transfer from group to group over the decades, gorilla vocalization hierarchies and social relationships among groups, rare  intanticide, gorilla diet, and how gorillas recycle nutrients. After 3years she stuck out her hand to a gorilla and the animal touched her fingers with his placing her own life at risk, Fossey publicly addressed the problems of continuous poaching and thanks to her work, an international project to benefit the mountain gorilla was set up. Its goals were to gain more insight into the gorillas and to stimulate tourism. This was supposed to create jobs and reduce poaching. Fossey did not agree with such an idea. She believed in more patrols that had the authority to shoot at poachers. Such an idea created hatred within poachers and therefore she was not very well  liked. Her murder on 26th December 1985 remains a mystery and there are several theories about her death. One is that former governor protais  Zigiranyirazo ordered to  have her killed , another idea is that poachers were behind her murder. The greater public discovered her unique work through the  motion picture ‘’gorillas  in the mist’’. Her 1983 book,  ‘’Gorillas  in  the  Mist’’ combines her scientific study of the gorillas at Karisoke Research Centre with her own personal story. It was adopted into a 1988 film of the same name. Fossey was murdered in 1985.

While the killing of gorillas was mounting, Dian Fossey began the most extensive research study of gorilla behavior first in DRC and later in Rwanda where she permanently established Karisoke research camp. She began helping gorillas, but the species were almost extinct. It was from a small hut in Rwanda that researcher and conservationist Dian Fossey observed that while gorillas may sometimes act tough, they are really gentle giants. Fossey is one of the most famous scientists in the world, but the path to greatness was a meandering one. Fossey’s research was funded by the Wilkie Foundation and the  Leakey Home, with primary funding from the National Geographical Society. By 1980, Fossey who had obtained her PHD at Cambridge University in the UK was  recognized as the worlds leading authority on the physiology and behavior of mountain gorillas, defining gorillas as being dignified, highly social, gentle giants, with individual personalities, and  strong family relationships.

Dian Fossey’s team of locals and research students revealed ecological, social and health life of gorillas during the years she spent in the forests. Few groups of mountain gorillas were habituated so people would get close to gorillas and it helped to portray gorillas as peaceful animals.

Dian Fossey lectured as professor at Cornel University in 1981-83. Her best selling book ‘’Gorillas in the Mist’’ was praised by Nikolaas Tinbergen, the Dutch ethologist and ornithologist who won the 1973 Nobel prize in physiologist or medicine. Her book remains the best selling book about gorillas.

Fossey was buried at Karisoke in a site that she herself had constructed for her deceased gorilla friends. She was buried in the gorilla graveyard next to Digit and near many gorillas killed by poachers. Memorial services were also held in New York, Washington and California.

When Dian Fossey was murdered in her cabin at the end of 1984, many wondered if the long term research would die with her. But by then, her legacy had a momentum and reached far beyond any one individual. The Digit Fund, which would eventually become the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI), was established to ensure Karisoke’s continuation.

While the research center that Dian Fossey set up no longer physically exists in the forest, its activities have never ceased. Karisoke field assistants and personnel of Rwanda’s Parc National des Volcans, working with research directors, Liz Williamson and, later, Katie Fawcett, have followed research and tourist groups in Rwanda throughout periods of violence.

Gorilla Habituation and Gorilla Trekking

Gorilla habituation is a process of training gorillas to get accustomed to humans but without changing their natural wild and social behavior. Dian Fossey spent almost 20 years following gorillas and collecting behavior and psychological data. But she had to first learn to imitate their feeding behavior in order to get close to them with no threat and it was successfully done with few groups of gorillas habituated.

She shared her experience with the rest of the world in her gorillas in the mist. It attracted support to habituate more gorilla families to start a new form of gorilla tourism through gorilla trekking which has attracted many tourists generating finances used for conservation activities like anti-poaching.

Today, there are several habituated gorilla families in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and the Virunga Massif. Today gorilla trekking is a popular activity in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many tourists want to see gorillas at a cost. Gorilla trekking has generated huge income that is helping gorillas to survive.

Gorilla trekking has strict rules and regulations limiting tourist contact with gorillas. A set of environmental rules including limiting sick tourists, keeping 7 meters away when viewing gorillas among others have ensured safety and health of gorillas through gorilla tourism.

Tourists who can afford gorilla trekking are encouraged to trek gorillas in Rwanda, Uganda and DRC. If it was not gorilla tourism, gorillas would be extinct. Financial benefits as an economic incentive are used to empower locals and keep the gorilla habitats off agriculture and other human activities. Visit the tour operators listing for gorilla trekking safaris in Rwanda, Uganda and DRC.

Dian also introduced anti-poaching patrols, removal of snare traps and directly confronting other forms of illegal encroachment on the gorilla habitats in Rwanda. However, her work was much hampered by resistance from locals and threat of civil wars in eastern DRC.

These were the most effective conservation strategies of Fossey’s time that laid foundation for the mountain gorilla project in 1979. Mountain gorillas began to heal and rebound from poaching and habitat loss due to international support for gorilla conservation and research.

As the project began arranging ground work for gorilla tourism development and ecotourism, Dian Fossey was placing hard to finish off her research work at karisoke. She published her book “gorillas in the mist” before her murder in 1984 which set a lasting trend for scientific gorilla research in history of African ape conservation.

Today, the Dian Fossey gorilla fund international stands out for successful mountain gorilla conservation through daily monitoring, education for conservation and most importantly helping local communities living around gorillas in Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo.

Mountain gorilla national parks are surrounded by high population. These depend on forests for food through hunting, firewood; water collection for their livelihoods.

Hence involving locals in conservation and providing alternative resources was and it is still a major work of the Dian Fossey’s legacy has improved their lives thus striking the delicate balance of conservation and gorilla tourism development.

Gorilla numbers were below 500 individuals at the time of Dian Fossey. As strange as it may sound, there was little or no health monitoring of gorillas as well as weak protective force of wildlife rangers across gorilla range states.