Born in California in 1932 Dian Fossey studied to be an occupational therapist. Her first trip to Africa came in 1963 where she met the famous archaeologist Dr. Louis Leakey. It was on this trip that Fossey first glimpsed the mountain gorillas and this set in stone an unbreakable interest and connection with the noble creatures of the Virunga Mountains. Upon returning to the US, Fossey published three articles relating to her trip and in 1966 met Leakey for a second time at a lecture in Louisville. It was here he asked Fossey to travel to the Congo and study the mountain gorillas. She accepted his offer and stayed there until civil war forced her to move her operations to Rwanda.
So begins the chapter of Fosseys life that made the greatest impact upon the world at large and unequivocally changed the course of her life forever. In 1967 she set up the Karisoke Research Centre and over the space of the next 18 years engaged with the gorillas of Rwanda on a level superseding anything that had come before. Fosseys interaction with the mountain gorillas was far from an overnight success; the Rwandan gorillas were highly suspicious of her presence.
However, they slowly became accustomed to her being there and Fossey managed to successfully integrate herself into their lives. She did so to such an extent the gorillas became comfortable enough to play with her hair, stare into her eyes and put around her shoulder a warm and gentle arm. Her relationship with the gorillas was one deeply personal; she gave them names and discovered each gorillas individual personality.
This attitude was ultimately to cause Fossey great pain and almost cost her reputation. However it also encouraged her to wage war against those who did not have the gorillas best interests at heart. Out of all those she had befriended, a young male gorilla, who she named Digit, was by far Fosseys favourite and acted as the sentry of a group she was studying, known as Group 4. On New Years Eve 1977 six poachers came across Group 4 and Digit defended them against the sudden threat. He managed to kill one of the poachers dogs but after suffering five spear wounds was tragically killed. The poachers then set about cutting off his hands and decapitated him; selling his hands for ash trays. While horrific, his sacrifice allowed the 13 other members of his group to escape.
Fossey and her team quickly managed to capture one of the poachers and forced him to talk. He revealed the names of his associates, three of whom were given long prison sentences. In the space of another sixth months, a gorilla Fossey had named Uncle Bert was also killed, along with other members of the same group. Fossey buried the bodies of Digit and the other gorillas in a self-made cemetery near her camp. The effect of their deaths, particularly Digits, had a powerful and terrible impact upon Fossey. She became determined more than ever to fight poaching as best she could, declaring all out war.
Fossey and her team would patrol the forest, disposing of traps almost as soon as theyd been set and, through varying methods, tortured and humiliated poachers they found. But that was not all. In honour of her friend, Fossey set up the Digit Fund, the purpose of which was to raise money to combat poaching and to finance her patrols. The West came to question her reasoning and whether her actions were justified. Her work, however, spoke for itself. There was a marked improvement in the mountain gorilla population and Fosseys research and insight into their way of life was invaluable.
She continued to fight against corruption amongst park rangers and campaigned against the government for not enforcing anti-poaching laws. In 1983 she also published a book documenting her struggles and research entitled Gorillas in the Mist
, a title shared by the film of the same name. Fossey returned to America for a while to oversee the publishing of her book but returned to Rwanda in 1985. It was not long after her return and mere weeks before she turned 54 that Fossey was murdered.
She was found dead in her cabin, beaten to death by a poachers machete that she had confiscated years ago and hung on her wall. To this day the identity of her murderer/s remains a mystery. Many assume it to be poachers but there is a great deal of evidence to suggest otherwise, especially as there were no valuables stolen and her attacker/s seemed to have a prior knowledge of her cabins layout. Fossey was buried in the cemetery she had created for her gorilla friends, next to Digit. Her contribution to the conservation of the mountain gorillas came at a great cost but most would argue that without her the species would now be extinct.