“On this day in 1985, the primatologist Dian Fossey was murdered. She was killed in her cabin at the Karisoke research station in Rwanda, her skull shattered by a huntsman’s machete that she had confiscated from a poacher the previous year.
She was born in 1932 in San Francisco. Her early career gave little clue as to her future in conservation; she trained as an occupational therapist before taking a job in a children’s hospital in Louisville.
Her interest in primatology surfaced during a trip to Africa in 1963. On a seven-week tour through central and eastern Africa she visited some of the continent’s most important sights for wildlife observation and conservation, culminating in a visit to Congo, then called Zaire, where she first encountered mountain gorillas.
She returned to Africa in 1966, and spent time with the primatologist Jane Goodall, who was carrying out research on chimpanzees in Tanzania. She was keen to observe Goodall’s methodology, and determined to conduct similar research into the endangered mountain gorillas of the Congo. She set up a research station in the Virunga Mountain range, and began a painstaking study of the species.
Political turmoil in Congo forced Fossey to relocate to the Rwandan side of the Virunga range in 1967. It was here that she established the Karisoke research station. From her Karisoke base Fossey began an in-depth study of gorilla behaviour, observing their social structures and group interaction. Through an intricate process of tracking and mimicry of gorilla behaviour, she gradually won the trust of the different groups, allowing her unparalleled access to the heart of gorilla communities.
Her closeness to gorilla life made her starkly aware of their fragile existence, and compelled her to campaign tirelessly against the manifest threats they were facing. She was particularly vociferous on the issue of poaching, and even established her own anti-poaching patrols of the region when it became clear the Rwandan authorities were unable to do so.
She also spoke of the detrimental effects of tourism. She was concerned that an over-exposure to outside bodies left the gorillas prone to diseases they were unable to repel. Mountain gorillas have no natural immunity to some human infections and Fossey was concerned that they were fatally susceptible to conditions such as flu. She further decried the interference to habitat and gorilla behaviour that tourists inevitably brought with them.
Fossey moved to New York in 1980, returning to Rwanda intermittently to conduct and supervise research. It was while in New York that she wrote her best-selling autobiographical work Gorillas in the Mist, the story of her intense relationship with the mountain gorillas.
She had only been back in Karisoke a few days when she was murdered by unknown assailants. She was critical of those who would exploit the gorillas for financial gain, and her opposition to poaching and tourism left her with many potential enemies.
She was buried at Karisoke, alongside her favourite and beloved gorilla Digit, himself the victim of the poachers’ machete.”
Credit: © Liam White / Alamy
Caption: Primatologist Dian Fossey with an infant gorilla in Rwanda.