1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Gorilla researcher in the mist

Brigitte OsterathDecember 26, 2015

Great apes were her friends; interacting with human beings was not her thing. People criticized her temper saying she was egocentric and filled with bitterness. Researcher Dian Fossey was murdered 30 years ago.

US researcher Dian Fossey Photo: The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International/www.gorillafund.org/dpa
Image: Foto: The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International/www.gorillafund.org/dpa

To this day, the identity of Dian Fossey's murderer remains unknown. Someone forcefully entered her cabin during the night from December 26 to 27, 1985 and must be quite furious, hitting Fossey's head and face twice with a machete. It seemed to be an act of personal revenge.

The gorilla researcher had made herself lots of enemies in the local community. She had been fighting relentlessly against poachers who threatened the existence of "her" mountain gorillas.

In the 1970s, only 250 mountain gorillas were left in the Virunga Mountains along the border of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly called Zaire) and Uganda.

Most poachers didn't aim to catch gorillas but the peaceful apes often became ensnared in traps intended for other animals, particularly antelope or buffalo.

Fossey feared that mountain gorillas would go extinct by the end of the 20th century if no one took action. She believed that only drastic methods could save the species. Long-term conservation goals, she thought, were useless.

Mountain gorilla in Uganda Photo: Rainer Dückerhoff
Mountain gorillas are still critically endangeredImage: Rainer Dückerhoff

Diplomacy was not her strong point

Many NGOs stress that conservation is only possible with the support of the local communities and that it takes a local commitment for conservation projects to succeed.

But Fossey's tactics were different. Her goal was protecting gorillas from humans - with whatever methods necessary. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, which Fossey established, calls her methods "unorthodox." Fossey herself called her strategy "active conservation."

Wearing masks, she scared off poachers, burned snares and spray-painted cattle to discourage herders from having them graze inside a national park.

"These tactics were not popular among locals who were struggling to get by," Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International writes on its website.

The situation turned especially violent after 1977 when poachers killed Fossey's favorite gorilla, Digit. The 5-year-old silverback was stabbed multiple times and his head and hands were severed when Fossey found his carcass.

The gorilla researcher declared war on the poachers. She took them on directly, forcing confrontation and not shrinking back from taking the law into her own hands.

Everything that somebody did to "her" gorillas, she took personally. Some people described her as an embittered woman who snubbed fellow researchers and met all Africans with condescendence and rejection.

A life for gorillas

Others, though, have praised Fossey as a selfless heroine saving an endangered species. Francois Bigirimana, a guide in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, who worked with Fossey, said he admired her for her tireless work and commitment.

"She was so courageous because she was doing what even rangers and local authorities were not doing," Bigirimana said.

US researcher Dian Fossey Photo: The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International/www.gorillafund.org/dpa
Dian Fossey: hard-working and committedImage: Foto: The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International/www.gorillafund.org/dpa

Fossey was born in 1932 in San Francisco. In 1963, she traveled to Africa and first encountered a gorilla while trekking in Uganda.

In her biography "Gorillas in the Mist," published in 1983, she wrote, "It was their individuality combined with the shyness of their behavior that remained the most captivating impression of this first encounter with the greatest of the great apes."

In 1966, she returned to Africa for good and devoted herself to protecting and researching these impressive animals. In 1967, she founded the Karisoke Research Center between the Karisimbi and Visoke volcanoes in Rwanda and continued to live and work there until her death.

A life with gorillas

Locals in the Rwandan part of the Virunga Mountains called Dian Fossey "Nyiramacibili" - woman who lives alone in the forest.

To be able to research the apes' behavior, she needed to come very close to them - so she had to win the animals' trust to gain their acceptance.

She put the gorillas at ease by imitating activities like scratching and copying their vocalizations; she chewed on celery when she was near the groups and knuckle-walked on the ground.

In the end, she was successful. She got closer to the primates than anyone had before, researching their social structure, their reproduction strategies and their personalities.

In her biography, though, Fossey stresses that humans have no right to be in the world of the apes: "Any observer is an intruder in the domain of a wild animal and must remember that the rights of that animal supersede human interests."

Sigourney Weaver in "Gorillas in the mist" Photo: picture-alliance/Bildarchiv
Sigourney Weaver starred as Dian Fossey in the movie "Gorillas in the Mist"Image: picture-alliance/Bildarchiv

Mission accomplished

The individual mountain gorillas became like family members to her, and she said she made her "home" among them. After her violent death in 1985, Fossey was buried in the gorilla graveyard behind her cabin at Karisoke, next to her beloved Digit.

Three years later, Fossey's biography was filmed starring Sigourney Weaver. The movie raised worldwide awareness for the situation of the endangered mountain gorillas.

According to Erika Archibald of Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, Fossey deserves credit for "making people around the world receptive for the neediness of these animals. She made absolutely clear that they need to be protected."

Unorthodox, active or simply headstrong - whatever way someone describes Dian Fossey and her strategy, she seems to have succeeded.

About 480 mountain gorillas exist in the Virunga Mountains. Worldwide there are 880. That makes mountain gorillas the only ape species whose numbers are increasing. But still, the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists them as "critically endangered."