One of my great inspirations has always been Dian Fossey. Like Jane Goodall, she was a pioneer in primatology field research- but her ape of choice was the mountain gorilla. She was never as popular as Jane of course, because she had quite a confronting personality. She was a fierce protector of the gorillas though, hiring her own army for anti-poaching patrols, destroying snares and arresting and intimidating poachers personally. Her methods were far from orthodox or popular, but you cannot refute that her work set the foundation for the success and survival of the mountain gorillas today. The gorilla research and conservation at Karisoke Research Center continues, more than 50 years after it was begun by Dian, and is now lead by Rwandan Felix Ndagijimana.
She’d actually started in Virunga National Park in 1967, but because of civil unrest Dian went to Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda where she carried out 18 years of research and activism. She was murdered in her house in the forest just after Christmas in 1985, and though some believe it was poachers that killed her, it was likely more complicated than that, and remains an unsolved mystery. Ian Redmond, her research assistant in the 70’s and a long-time friend of Dian’s, took us to her gravesite so we could pay our respects. She’s buried alongside her beloved gorillas.
Her stunning National Geographic photos, her book Gorillas in the Mist, and then the Hollywood movie of the same title made Dian Fossey famous. But more importantly, Dian Fossey made the mountain gorillas famous, and for that, we are forever in her debt.
Dian Fossey takes notes on wild mountain gorillas, 1977. (Photo by Ian Redmond)
How amazing it must have been to be the first to have this kind of contact with wild mountain gorillas! (Photo by Ian Redmond)
Ian Redmond wasn’t just a pretty face, he was (and still is) totally dedicated to the cause, and one of the only research assistants that Dian Fossey praised. (Photo by Dian Fossey)
Digit was the name Dian gave to the first wild gorilla that made contact with her. And this is how he was found one day in the forest, murdered by poachers. Despite her grief, she used the experience for activism. Dian is buried with Digit in the forest (Photo by Ian Redmond).
“Dian Fossey 1932-1985. No one loved gorillas more. Rest in peace dear friend, eternally protected in this sacred ground for you are home where you belong.”