June 1st 2017
Bio Bottle Essay
No One Loved Gorillas More
As the sun rose over Karisoke research center, in Rwanda, Africa, people gathered outside the cabin where Dian Fossey, a world famous American primatologist, and conservationist, lay dead. Dian Fossey was the first person to conduct a long term field study of mountain gorilla behavior, and fought passionately for mountain gorilla conservation. Dian loved animals from a young age, worked hard to keep the gorillas she loved safe, and even after she died her legacy lives on. Dian changed the way we see gorillas which at the time was as violent brutes, when they were really gentle giants.
First of all, Dian Fossey was born in San Francisco, California, January 16, 1932. When she was young, her parents divorced, so she grew up with her mother and stepfather. Dian excellent student and was interested in animals at a very young age. At 6 years old, she began horseback riding lessons, and in high school she earned a letter on the riding team. Dian enrolled in college classes, at Marin Junior College. She chose to focus on business, following the encouragement of her stepfather. She worked in school awhile and at age 19, on a summer break, following her freshman year of college, she went to work on a ranch in Montana. At the ranch she developed an attachment to the animals, but was forced to leave early, when she got chicken pox. That experience at the ranch convinced Dian to follow her dreams and return to college as a pre veterinary student at the University of California. She soon found the chemistry and physics courses too challenging, and turned her focus to occupational therapy at San Jose College, which she graduated from in 1954.
Following graduation, Dian interned at various hospitals in California working with tuberculosis patients. After less than a year, she moved to Louisville, Kentucky where she was hired as a director of the occupational therapy department at Kosair Crippled Children’s Hospital. Dian lived outside the city limits, in a cottage on a farm, where the owners encouraged her to work with the animals. Dian enjoyed her experience on the farm but she dreamed of seeing more of the world and its abundant wildlife. A friend travelled to Africa, and brought home pictures of her amazing vacation. Seeing this, Dian decided that she must travel to Africa herself. She spent many years longing to go to Africa, and realized if she wanted to go there, she would have to take matters into her own hands. In 1963, Dian took out a bank loan, and prepared to set off to the land of her dreams.
During, Dian’s Africa trip, she met Dr. Louis Leakey at Olduvai Gorge. Leakey talked to Dian about Jane Goodall’s work with chimps, and gave Dian permission to have a look at a newly excavated site, while she was in Olduvai, but in her excitement, she slipped down a steep slope, fell onto a recently excavated dig, and broke her ankle, which was unfortunate because, she was soon to leave, to go on the last leg of her trip, which was to see mountain gorillas. On October 16th, Dian visited The Traveller’s Rest, a small hotel in Uganda close to the Virunga Mountains. Here Dian met Joan and Alan Root, wildlife photographers from Kenya, who were collecting photage of mountain gorillas. The Roots took Dian into the jungle to observe gorillas. At that moment, she decided that somehow, she would come back to these gorillas. After arriving back to Kentucky, and meeting Dr. Louis Leakey again, she would.
Next, Dian had so many achievements with gorillas, and she did not even have scientific credentials until 1970 when she enrolled in Darwin College, Cambridge. Dian founded Karisoke Research Center in 1967. Kari came from the first four letters of Mount Karisimbi and the last four letters of Mount Visoke. Both these mountains overlook the camp. Dian faced a number of challenges while setting up Karisoke. Firstly, there was a language barrier. The men she hired spoke Kinyarwandan, while she spoke Swahili. The second problem was earning the trust of the gorillas, which meant for them, losing their fear of humans. Dian fought off poachers, and herders by wearing masks to scare them off, burning snares, spray painting cattle to discourage herders from bringing them into the park, and sometimes even taking the poachers head on. Dian used her own funding to buy equipment for park guards, so that they could be more active with the anti poaching laws. Out of all the gorillas there was one Dian formed a close bond with. His name was Digit and he was five years old, when Dian met him. Digit had a damaged finger on his right hand, hence the name, and he soon became good friends with Dian. Unfortunately, on December 31st, 1977, Digit was killed by poachers. Dian studied gorillas for nineteen years before her tragic death, that shook the world.
Unfortunately, Dian was murdered in Rwanda in 1985, a few weeks before her 54th birthday. She was found dead in her cabin in the morning. She had been struck twice on the head with a machete. There were signs of forced entry, but no signs that robbery had been the motive. Her murder has never been solved but there are many theories suggesting what happened. She was laid to rest next to her beloved Digit, in a graveyard behind her cabin in Karisoke. The inscription on her tomb is, “Dian Fossey 1932-1985, No one loved gorillas more.”
Dian Fossey was an American primatologist and conservationist who not just studied but formed bonds with the gorillas she worked with. She has been dead for over three decades, but her legacy lives on. She continues to inspire others, and because of her work, mountain gorillas still thrive today in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda, Uganda, and The Democratic Republic of Congo.
“When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.” – Dian Fossey
Be?doye?re Camilla De la, et al. No One Loved Gorillas More: Dian Fossey – Letters from the Mist. Palazzo, 2005.
“Dian Fossey Biography.” Dian Fossey, gorillafund.org/who-we-are/dian-fossey/dian-fossey-bio/.
Fossey, Dian. Gorillas in the Mist. National Library for the Blind, 1990.