Dian Fossey legacy : From 1966 until her passing in 1985, American primatologist Dian Fossey gained notoriety for her through observations and investigations on mountain gorillas. She studied the big apes for more than 20 years before living with them in the Virunga Mountains, where she eventually grew to be their friend, guardian, and some would even argue savior.

Dian Fossey fulfils a dream.

To fulfil a longstanding desire of travelling to Africa, Dian Fossey had to take out a bank loan and use all of her life savings. Dian reached Kenya in September 1963. Kenya, Tanzania (then Tanganyika), Congo (then Zaire), and Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) were among the places she travelled through in Africa. John Alexander, a British hunter, was her host and guide on her amazing expedition. His itinerary took him past the largest national park in Africa, Tsavo; the saltwater lake of Manyara, which is renowned for drawing enormous flamingo flocks; and the Ngorongoro Crater, which is renowned for its profusion of animals.

This was the archaeological site of Louis and Mary Leakey. Next, to the Congo’s Mount Mikeno, where American naturalist Dr. George Schaller conducted a groundbreaking study on the mountain gorilla in 1959. As the pioneer of a trustworthy field study of mountain gorillas, Dr. Schaller cleared the path for the studies that would eventually become Dian Fossey’s life’s work.

Dian Fossey’s visit to Dr. Louis Leakey at Olduvai Gorge proved to be a life-changing event. Dr. Leakey discussed Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees in Tanzania, which was just in its third year, with Dian during their meeting. He also agreed with the great apes about the value of conducting extended field research.

While Dian was at Olduvai Gorge, the site of the earliest evidence of human ancestry, Dr. Leakey allowed her to tour some recently excavated areas. Unfortunately, she broke her ankle when she stumbled on a recently excavated dig due to her excitement and tumbled down a steep slope. This put Dian’s approaching climb to see mountain gorillas at risk, but she was not discouraged so easily. She was determined as ever to reach the gorillas, even after her crippling fall.

On October 16, Dian went to the Travellers Rest, a little motel in a remote area of Uganda near the mountain gorillas and the Virunga Mountains. Walter Baumgartel, one of the first people to recognise the potential benefits of tourism for the region and the conservation of mountain gorillas, owned the hotel. Baumgartel was a strong supporter of gorilla conservation.

Dian was introduced by Baumgartel to Kenyan wildlife photographers Joan and Alan Root, who were filming mountain gorillas for a picture documentary. Dian was taken by The Roots far into the forest in order to look for gorillas. When they finally came upon a group, something inside of her woke up and stirred, and she became determined to go back and research these amazing animals on her own.

Dian stayed with friends in Rhodesia for a little longer on her journey through Africa following her visit to the Virungas, which changed her life. She returned home to Kentucky and went back to work at Kosair Children’s Hospital in order to pay back the debt she had taken out to finance her trip to Africa, all the while hoping to return to the continent that had won her heart.

While residing in Kentucky, Dian Fossey composed and released several pieces along with images from her life-changing journey to Africa. These would subsequently come in handy when Dr. Louis Leakey visited Louisville in the spring of 1966 as part of a lecture tour. Dian went to the lecture and then stood in queue to talk to Leakey. She showed him some of her published work when it was her time.

This piqued his interest, and in the next discussion, Leakey discussed with Dian the possibility of doing an extended field investigation to learn more about gorillas in Africa. Leakey informed Dian that she would need to have her appendix removed before spending a significant amount of time in the gorillas’ habitat if she truly wanted to be a part of the study.

“Actually there really isn’t any need for you to have your appendix removed,” Leakey wrote Dian in a letter she received a few weeks after she left the hospital without her appendix. Fossey stated, “This was her first introduction to Dr. Leakey’s unique sense of humour and his way of gauging her resolve.” That is just his method of testing applicants’ resolve.

Leaky had to wait several months to find funding for the project, but Dian made good use of it, using the money to cover both her studies and her first trip to Africa. She concentrated on reading George Schaller’s books about his personal fieldwork with mountain gorillas and on a grammar book titled “Teach Yourself Swahili.” It was hard to say goodbye to her cherished dogs, family, and friends:

Less than three years had passed since her first journey to Africa, and Dian was once more on her way, this time heading to Kenya and then the Congo in an ancient Land Rover with a canvas top known as “Lily.” While travelling, Dian stopped at the Gombe Stream study Centre to see Jane Goodall and get an overview of her chimpanzee study techniques.

Travelling with Dian Fossey from Kenya to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Alan Root played a pivotal role in assisting her in acquiring the essential permits for her work in the Virungas. He also assisted her in finding two males from the area to live and work at the camp. Root helped set up camp and gave Dian a quick overview of gorilla tracking using his expertise. Dian was shocked to discover how alone she was just two days after he departed Camp Kabara. But soon, her only priority would be tracking the mountain gorillas.

After just ten minutes of her first day of trekking, Dian was rewarded with the sight of a lone male gorilla relaxing in a clearing in the bush. As she got closer, the scared gorilla fled into the foliage, but Dian felt inspired by the experience. Senwekwe, a seasoned gorilla tracker who had previously collaborated with Joan and Alan Root in 1963, joined Dian shortly after, greatly increasing the likelihood of additional sightings.

Senwekwe taught Dian a lot of what she learned about tracking and proved to be an outstanding tracker. She eventually found three gorilla groups in her study area along the slopes of Mt. Mikeno with his assistance and a great deal of patience.

At first, when Dian got close, the gorillas would run into the foliage. She gradually started to win their acceptance by openly watching them from a distance. She mimicked their routine behaviours, such as eating and scratching, and mimicked their vocalisations of satisfaction to help the gorillas feel more at ease.

Like George Schaller before her, Dian started to recognise the individuals that made up each group and mostly depended on the unique “noseprints” of the gorillas to aid in their identification. She observed the gorillas and their noseprints from a distance, learning about their behaviours and compiling meticulous daily logs of her interactions with them as she gradually improved at identifying specific members of the three different groups in and around Kabara.

The worsening political situation in the Congo forced Dian Fossey to leave camp on July 9, 1967. A rebellion had broken out in the Kivu Province of Zaire, and when she and Senwekwe returned to camp, armed soldiers were waiting to “escort” her down the mountain to safety. Dian Fossey worked tirelessly, carrying a pack weighing over 10 kgs every day until that day.

Dian Fossey legacy
Mountain Gorilla

After being placed under military surveillance in Rumangabo, Zaire for two weeks, Dian managed to plan her escape on July 26. In order to properly register “Lily” and return her, she promised her guards money in exchange for them transporting her the 50 kilometres to Kisoro in Uganda. The guards consented to give escort because they were unable to turn down the money. Dian proceeded directly to the Travellers Rest Hotel upon arriving in Kisoro, where her acquaintance Walter Baumgärtel promptly contacted the Ugandan military. Dian was safe, and the Zairian soldiers were taken into custody.

After receiving repeated warnings not to go back to Zaire in Kisoro and being questioned more in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali, Dian eventually took a plane back to Nairobi, where she saw Dr. Leakey for the first time in seven months. There, they both chose to disregard the American advise. Dian would carry on her work on the Rwandan side of the Virunga Mountains with the Embassy.

When it comes to supporting and contributing to the success of the study of mountain gorillas, Dian Fossey is quick to give credit to everyone she encountered along the way. This would become apparent once more when she turned her attention to Volcanoes National Park in the Rwandan side of the Virungas, where she met Rosamond Carr. Carr had spent some time living in Rwanda and had subsequently introduced Dian to Alyette DeMunck; both women were acquainted with the customs and culture of Rwanda. After Alyette and Dian grew close, Alyette became one of Dian’s most ardent supporters in the years that followed.

Alyette promised to assist Dian in locating a suitable location for her new camp and ongoing research on the Virunga mountain gorillas. Dian was initially dismayed to see that there were numerous herds of cattle and obvious evidence of poachers on the slopes of Mount Karisimbi. Dian was rewarded for her search after almost two weeks when she arrived in the alpine meadow of Karisimbi, where she was able to take in a breathtaking vista of the entire Virunga chain of extinct volcanoes.

On September 24, 1967, Dian Fossey founded the Karisoke Research Centre. The word “soke” refers to the final four letters of Mt. Bisoke, whose slopes climbed to the north directly behind the camp, and “kari” stands for the first four letters of Mt. Karisimbi, which overlooked her camp from the south.

A world of hard work at Karisoke.

Setting up camp at Karisoke presented Dian with a number of difficulties, particularly when her friend Alyette left. Without an interpreter, she was forced to communicate with her Rwandan employees solely in Swahili, which was more like speaking Kinyarwanda. They acquired the ability to communicate gradually with the help of hand gestures and facial expressions.

Getting “acceptance” from the gorillas in the area was a second, and very important, challenge in order to conduct meaningful research in close quarters. The gorillas would have to get beyond their shyness and innate fear of people in order to accomplish this.

The methods Dian used to help habituated six groups of gorillas in the Kabara region and, by 1968, four groups in Karisoke were successfully habituated to her presence were based on the earlier study and book “The Mountain Gorilla” by George Schaller.

In addition to using Schaller’s methods, Dian relied on the gorillas’ innate curiosity to help them become habituated. She was able to approach the groups rather closely by “knuckle-walking,” even though standing or walking straight made them more fearful. She would also gnaw on celery to pique their interest when she was close to them.

Dian Fossey acknowledged that she never felt fully prepared for the scientific aspects of researching mountain gorillas because she believed her academic background was insufficient. In order to correct this, Dian enrolled in Darwin College, Cambridge, in 1970 to study animal behaviours. Studying under Dr. Robert Hinde, the man who had oversaw Jane Goodall’s work. Between Cambridge and Africa, Dian went until 1974, when she finished her doctorate.

Now that she had the degree, she felt more confident that others would take her and her work seriously. Her capacity to carry on with her work, command respect, and—most importantly—secure additional money was all improved by her newly discovered confidence.

Snare Laid By Poachers.

Dian was growing more conscious of the dangers that poachers and livestock herders posed to the mountain gorillas, even as her accomplishments in study and her acceptance by the gorillas and the wider world became more obvious. Despite not being the intended targets, gorillas occasionally died after being entangled in traps meant for other animals.

Through unconventional means, including as donning masks to frighten off poachers, setting fire to snares, spray-painting livestock to deter herders from bringing them into the forest park, and occasionally confronting poachers head-on, Dian combated both poachers and the incursion of herds of cattle.

She referred to these strategies as “active conservation,” believing that other long-term conservation objectives would be fruitless without prompt and decisive action as there would soon be no gorillas or really nothing left to rescue.

The underprivileged residents did not approve of Dian’s strategies, and the park rangers lacked the tools necessary to uphold the regulations safeguarding the forest and its occupants. As a final resort, Dian utilized her personal money to augment their pay and assist in buying boots, uniforms, food, and other supplies to urge park rangers to effectively enforce anti-poaching regulations. The first Karisoke anti-poaching patrols were established as a result of these efforts, and their duty was to guard the gorillas in the research area.

Dian with Digit.

Through years of study, Dian proved herself to be a true friend of the mountain gorillas, developing a special bond with one in particular. Adopted as “Digit,” he was approximately 5 years old when she first met him in 1967. He had no playmates his age in his group and had a damaged finger on his right hand hence the moniker. Curiosity brought them together, and as time went on, a genuine friendship developed.

Sadly, poachers killed Digit on December 31, 1977. He gave his life protecting his friends and facilitating their escape. His hands and skull were severed, and he suffered several stab wounds.

Later on, more gorillas would perish, including “Uncle Bert,” the dominating silverback, and this specific troop of gorillas would split apart. Fossey declared war on the poachers as the culmination of everything.

Bob Campbell – Wildlife Photographer.

Photographer Bob Campbell was dispatched by the National Geographic Society in 1968 to capture images of Dian’s research. Though at first she considered him an intruder, they would grow to be great friends. By capturing Fossey among the mountain gorillas in his photos, he helped raise awareness of their predicament and permanently altered public perception of the gorillas, transforming them from the King Kong cliché to a kind, compassionate animal. Digit was the official mascot of the park, appearing on posters and in newspapers all over the world, after taking part in this well-known picture session.

After much internal discussion, Dian established the Digit Fund to gather funds for her “active conservation” and anti-poaching campaigns. She also utilized his stardom and untimely death to garner support for gorilla conservation. Later on, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (Fossey Fund) would replace the Digit Fund.

Death and Legacy.

“Gorillas in the Mist” states, “When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what has past and concentrate on the preservation of the future.”

A few weeks shy of turning 54, Dian was brutally killed; on December 27, 1985, her body was found in her hut nestled deep in the Rwandan mountains. Although forcible entrance was evident, there were no indications that robbery was the reason behind it.

Though they vary, theories regarding Dian Fossey’s murder have never been shown to be correct. Beside her beloved Digit and her gorilla companions, she was buried in the graveyard behind her cabin at Karisoke.

Her effort has inspired a new generation of African conservationists, giving the gorillas new hope, but her legacy endures to this day. Tourists can combine a visit to the Karisoke Research Centre at Musanze with gorilla trekking safari today thanks to the efforts of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.

Dian Fossey established a reputation at her research centre in Rwanda by dedicating enough time there. The Swahili term Nyiramachabelli, which loosely translates to “the woman who lives alone on the mountain,” was how the villagers referred to her.

Her description of her years spent in the rainforest with the mountain gorillas is featured in the 1983 book “Gorillas in the Mist.” Above all, it emphasizes how crucial coordinated conservation efforts are. Both the book and the movie of the same name have gotten overwhelmingly positive reviews and are still highly recommended.

There is no other wildlife experience like trekking to observe the majestic mountain gorillas. Get in contact with us to find out more about trekking to Rwanda and Uganda to witness these amazing creatures in their natural environment. We’ll work to make your dream gorilla trekking safari experience a reality.

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