Scientist Sunday: Leakey’s Angels Part II, Dian Fossey

Today’s post is about Dian Fossey, the second “Leakey’s Angel”. If you haven’t already, be sure to read the first part of this series, which spotlights Jane Goodall!

Dian Fossey studied gorillas for 18 years in the mountains of Rwanda. She wrote about her research in the bestselling book Gorillas in the Mist, which continues to be one of the most seminal books about the relationship between humans and animals.

Fossey was born in San Francisco, California in 1932. When she was six, she began horseback riding, a hobby that remained with her into her adult life. Her love of horses led her to enroll in a pre-veterinary course at UC Davis. However, she soon found herself struggling with core science classes such as chemistry and physics. After two years, she transferred to San Jose State College, where she received her bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy at the age of 22.

After college, she pursued work as an occupational therapist. She moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where she eventually become the director of the occupational therapy department at Kosair Crippled Children’s Hospital.

In 1963, at age 31, Fossey borrowed $8,000, a full year’s salary for her, to travel around Africa for seven weeks. She had read works by the famous zoologist and naturalist George Schaller, and felt inspired to see more of the world. At the end of her stay, she visited Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, where Louis and Mary Leakey had established a study site. She hoped to meet the Leakeys and tour their archaeological digs. Louis Leakey, uninterested in obliging another tourist, charged Fossey to have a look around. As he was showing her an important giraffe fossil that he had recently uncovered, she slipped and fell onto the specimen, spraining her ankle and vomiting on the fossil in the process – causing much more damage than the 14 shillings she had paid for the tour. These would be Leakey’s first memories of Dian Fossey.

Dian Fossey with pair of gorillas

After Olduvai Gorge, she went to Uganda, where she was introduced to wildlife photographers Joan and Alan Root, who let her camp with them for a few days. It was during this time that Fossey had her first encounters with wild mountain gorillas.

Following her adventure around Africa, Fossey returned to Louisville and worked to repay her loans. Her visit to Africa had made a strong impression on her, and she published three articles in the Louisville newspaper, The Courier-Journal, describing her experience. When she learned that Louis Leakey would be making a stop in Louisville as part of a nationwide lecture tour, Fossey went to meet him with clips of her articles from The Courier-Journal. It was then, three years after her first trip to Africa, that Leakey offered to support Fossey in a long-term study of mountain gorillas. Jokingly, he suggested that she should have her appendix taken out, since she would be far removed from modern medicine in the mountain forests of Africa. A few weeks later, Leakey sent her a letter with more details about the job, and telling her that he was only joking about the appendix. However, by then, it was too late — in a show of commitment, Fossey had already gotten it removed.

Notable accomplishments:

Dian Fossey taking field notes

In early 1967, Dian Fossey began her work with gorillas in the Congo, at the same meadow where George Schaller did his fieldwork nearly a decade earlier. However, due to political turmoil in the Congo, she was forced to relocate to Rwanda. By September of the same year, she founded the Karisoke Research Center, its name a portmanteau of the two volcanoes that sandwiched the site — Mts. Karisimbi and Visoke.

Because the gorillas only knew humans as poachers, Fossey had to earn their trust. Eventually, she discovered that mimicking their behavior convinced them to let down their guard. Once the gorillas became familiar with Fossey, they let her study them more closely. She began to differentiate between gorillas based on their noses, which are unique in shape and wrinkle patterns for each individual. She would later compare her successes in habituating gorillas to her work as an occupational therapist.

Dian Fossey with two gorillas, image from

During her time at Karisoke, Fossey made significant discoveries about gorillas. She studied their social dynamics, and found that gorillas hold strong family ties that compel them to fight for the protection of infants in their group and to care for wounded or weaker group members. She also learned that gorillas will transfer females between groups. Fossey tracked the distances they traveled each day, and investigated their vocalization patterns. She established that their diets consist mainly of plants, and that they sometimes eat their own feces to recycle the nutrients from re-ingested seeds. She observed rare infanticide and cannibalism. Similar to Goodall, Fossey came to identify distinct personality traits for the gorillas she studied, and named each one.

As Fossey grew more and more fond of the gorillas she studied, she began to abandon her scientific research in favor of protecting the gorillas from poachers. After losing some of her most studied gorillas to poachers, she pursued this task with a vengeance. She and her staff began to employ “guerilla” tactics against poachers (sorry, couldn’t resist…) — intimidating, detaining, and humiliating them; sabotaging their traps; holding their cattle captive; and setting fire to their hunting camps. She called for the arrest of several poachers, many of whom were sentenced to long prison stays.

Fossey was also outspoken in her opposition to tourism and to holding gorillas in captivity. She attributed several gorilla deaths to human diseases introduced by tourists, for which the gorillas had no immunities. She believed that tourism also interfered with the gorillas’ natural wild behavior, and openly accused conservation-based tourist programs of hypocrisy. Fossey publicly disapproved of holding animals in captivity for human entertainment. In 1978, she tried to thwart the export of two infant gorillas from Rwanda to the Cologne Zoo in Germany. During the gorillas’ capture, 20 adult gorillas had been killed in their efforts to protect the infants.

In 1978, Fossey established the Digit Fund to finance her anti-poaching patrols. The fund was created in memory of her favorite gorilla, Digit, who was decapitated by a poacher for 20 USD. Today, the fund, known as The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, pays for daily gorilla monitoring at the Karisoke Research Center.

Dian Fossey playing with a gorilla

Seven years later, in 1985, Fossey was found murdered in her cabin in Rwanda. She had been struck over the head with a machete — one she had confiscated from a poacher and displayed on a wall in her cabin. Some believe that Fossey was killed by a poacher, while others believe that Fossey was killed by someone who resented her for standing in the way of Rwandan tourism and the potential economic benefit the country could derive from gorillas. It’s also possible that Fossey knew too much about the illegal trafficking sponsored by Rwanda’s ruling elite. Regardless of the reason, it was clear that Fossey was not about to leave Rwanda on her own any time soon. Months before her death, she had signed a $1,000,000 contract with Universal Studios for a film based on Gorillas in the Mist – a deal that would have funded her long-term presence in the region.

Why I admire Fossey:

Like Goodall, Fossey didn’t necessarily have the academic credentials of a star scientist. Rather, she succeeded because of her drive and determination. While many of her students and research assistants were scared off by the cold, dark, muddy, and densely vegetated conditions in Karisoke, Fossey remained there for 18 years, living in near-isolation.
In contrast to many scientists who shy away from having an agenda in order to maintain scientific objectivity, Fossey was not afraid to advocate for the gorillas she studied. She dedicated herself wholly to protecting them, and, in the end, likely died as a result of her bold efforts.
Through her work, Fossey dispelled the public notion that gorillas were ferocious savages. Her studies showed that gorillas could be peaceful, “gentle giants”, and challenged the Hollywood-created “King Kong” image.
Though many people believe that Fossey’s measures were too extreme, her work ultimately led the international conservation and scientific communities to recognize the importance of protecting critically endangered mountain gorillas. Today, the Rwandan government also prioritizes the protection of these rare gorillas. Indeed, the Rwandan people have established Kwita Izina, an annual ceremony in which they christen each baby gorilla and celebrate the importance of conserving the gorillas and their natural habitat.
If you enjoyed this week’s Scientist Sunday, be sure to check back next week for the last post in the Leakey’s Angels series, which will feature Biruté Galdikas!

3 thoughts on “Scientist Sunday: Leakey’s Angels Part II, Dian Fossey

  1. Pingback: Scientist Sunday: Leakey’s Angels Part III, Biruté Galdikas | Ink Chromatography

  2. Pingback: Fossey Archives: Behavior | Charlotte Gable

  3. Pingback: Leakey`s Angel/The Trimate (2): Dian Fossey | Imbalance in Balance

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