Up-close encounters with surprisingly gentle great apes in Rwanda would be impossible today if not for the groundbreaking research of Dian Fossey, the iconic primatologist who was k.ill.ed on December 26 three decades ago.
For more than 20 years, Dr. Dian Fossey lived among the mountain gorillas of the Virunga mountains, at first studying the great apes and then, slowly becoming their friend and protector.
A respected and pioneering primatologist, Dr. Fossey soon became best-known for her conservation work. Despite facing both economic and political obstacles, she successfully fought to establish the first dedicated ranger patrols. Alongside her research and frontline conservation, she also made it her mission to bring the plight of the great apes to the world’s attention.
In 1966, when Fossey began her field study, the mountain gorillas of Rwanda were wild; their only prior human contact having been with p o ac hers. After she and her team established the Karisoke Research Center in a valley between two volcanic peaks in the Virungas—Karisimbi and Visoke—Fossey slowly habituated the shy, reclusive apes to her presence so that she could sit near them and observe their daily lives.
In 1978, Dian Fossey established the Digit Fund, named after one of her favourite gorillas, Digit, who was b ru ta lly m u.r de.red by p o ac hers that same year. The Digit Fund helped finance vital ranger patrols through the gorilla habitat, keeping gorillas safe from hunters. Meanwhile her autobiography and the 1987 Hollywood movie made about her life (“Gorillas in the Mist”) helped make gorilla conservation a global concern.
Fossey’s 18 years of research led to remarkable discoveries about mountain gorillas. But perhaps her greatest contribution to the survival of mountain gorillas as a species was the introduction of what she called “active conservation” tactics—patrolling to ward off p o ac hers and chase away cattle, de.s troying traps, taking census counts of the animals, and lobbying for the expansion of protected habitat. She was certain that without quick and decisive action, carried out by herself with a team of locals she had hired and trained, long-term gorilla conservation goals would be futile, as there would eventually be nothing left to save.
Along with her crew, Fossey c.a.p.tur.ed, b.eat, and hu.mili.ate.d suspected p o ac hers, occasionally holding their cattle for ransom or burning their hunting camps to the ground. She acc.used national park staff of helping p o ac hers ca.pt.ure infant gorillas for foreign zoos and challenged Rwandan government officials to enforce poaching laws more strictly.
Tr.agic.ally, Dr. Fossey d i.ed in 1985, k. illed in the lush forests she had called home for two decades. She herself was bl.u.d.geo.ned to d.e a.th in her cabin by someone who opposed her methods, either by a p o ac her or a s.corn.ed member of her staff. However, her legacy lives on. Her work inspired a new generation of African conservationists, giving the gorillas new hope. Meanwhile, the original Digit Fund would lay the foundations for The Gorilla Organization, which continues to work tirelessly to ensure her work was not in vain. Fossey is b.u.ri.ed at the Karisoke Research Center, in a g.rav.e.yard she had constructed for her d.e.c.ease.d gorilla friends, next to her favorite ape, Digit.
Despite decades of civil u.n.rest leading to the h.o.rri.fic 1994 g en.oc.i de of more than 800,000 Tutsis, Rwanda is the only country whose mountain gorilla population is growing.
P.oa.ching, d.is.ease, and habitat loss had reduced their numbers to around 250 across their range in East Africa—including smaller populations in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo—by the time Fossey d i.ed in 1985. Today there are approximately 900 left on Earth, and nearly half of them live in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Looking into the eyes of a mountain gorilla, it is easy to imagine the emotions Dian Fossey must have felt as she became the first scientist to study the species in earnest nearly half a century ago, and to understand why she became so passionate about protecting these critically e.nd.anger.ed great apes.
In addition to documenting the daily lives of mountain gorillas, Fossey kept a personal diary. The last entry she wrote read: “When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.”
Thankfully, Rwanda seems to have taken this advice to heart. Applying the lessons of both Fossey’s successes and failures, the nation now looks to the mountain gorilla as a source of national pride and a hopeful symbol of its economic future.