It can be fairly asserted that whenever a discussion is sparked about the gorillas in Virunga conservation area, one name always keeps showing up, Dian Fossey! Born in 1932, and raised from San Francisco USA came to later be known as a primatologist whose successes led to decades of flourishing gorilla conservation in Rwanda, D.R Congo and Uganda. A bright student she was, Dian always had great admiration for animals (domestic and wildlife). She attended Marin Junior College and took on business studies. This was mainly due to the encouragement and inspiration from her stepfather who was an established businessman.
During her summer break following her first year in college, she took on work at a ranch. This was set in Montana. Having worked around animals, she re-attained her lost love for them. However, her experience was cut short as she contracted chicken pox. This however didn’t stop her from following her passion.
It’s not surprising that when she attended the University of California, she pursued pre-veterinary studies. However, she found some modules challenging, so she dropped the course for a degree in Occupational Therapy at San Jose State College, and later graduated in 1954. She would later work in hospitals around Kentucky, until her friend who had been in Africa for a vacation shared some of her photos with Dian. Dian was intrigued, and that’s how her first love for travelling to Africa was developed.
Coming into Africa
After many attempts to secure funding for her trip to Africa, she got a bank loan and in 1963, she entered Africa via Kenya, proceeded to Tanganyika, Zaire (D.R. Congo) and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). She visited Tsavo National Park, Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater and Olduvai Gorge. Dian on visiting Dr. George Schaller at Mountain Mikeno in Congo, was fascinated by the American zoologist’s work around the mountain gorillas and this later became Dian’s inspiration for her future studies around the primates.
When she visited Tanganyika, Dian met Dr. Louis Leakey at Olduvai Gorge. Dr. Louis shared some experiences about the work that was being conducted by Jane Goodall in Tanganyika. Jane was engaged in chimpanzee research and was in the 3rd year of her works.
Encounter with mountain gorillas
Dian first encountered the mountain gorillas in October, 1966. She was at a hotel in Uganda. This hotel, the Traveler’s Rest, was owned by Walter Baumgartel. He had been an ardent advocate of the mountain gorilla conservation and their tourism. It’s of no wonder that he had even set up a hotel, at which the tourists would seek rest. With the help of Alan and Joan Root, tourists from Kenya who had come into Uganda similarly to tour and take photography, Dian was introduced to the mountain gorillas in the wilderness, and as she describes in her literary work “Gorillas of the mist, she resolved to return to Africa and take on mountain gorilla research.
On her return to Africa, she set camp at Kabara, and with the help of her tracker Senkwekwe, she commenced studying mountain gorillas along the slopes of Mountain Mikeno. She later learnt gorilla habituation and her works later gave off when she habituated the very first gorilla group that, named “Digit.” During the time she was engaged in mountain gorilla conservation, poaching was rampant, and because of this, Digit her favorite silverback was equally killed while he tried protecting his family. Dian decided that he would be buried close to her cabin.
Dian’s works led to the formation of Karisoke Research Center to expand the mountain gorilla research projects, but there were constant disruptions especially the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Because of his center’s works, numerous mountain gorillas were saved from disease and poaching. The Karisoke Research Center still exists in Rwanda and still undertaking mountain gorilla research and conservation activities.
Death of Dian Fossey
Towards her 54th birthday, Dian Fossey was announced dead after having been found murdered in her cabin near Karisoke. The postmortem report stated that she had been struck by a machete. This was 1985. She was buried near her old friend Digit, whose grave lay behind Dian’s cabin. Her legacy still lives on, even in death.
Dian Fossey Fund
Following Dian Fossey’s death, a Fund was established to honor and continue this noble work. This fund commenced in 1967 and is known as Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. This fund pioneered mountain gorilla conservation activities in Rwanda and inspired numerous conservationists going forward. The Fund supports scientific research, education for conservation and champions mountain gorilla protection. Dian Fossey Fund supports a database collection of mountain gorilla information that’s about 50 years old.
Rangers from Karisoke Research Center engage in the tracking of their assigned gorillas each day to monitor their movements, behavior and breeding habits. Dian Fossey Fund also supports conservation activities of Grauer’s lowland gorillas in D.R Congo at Nkuba-Biruwe Research and Conservation Base in Kahuzi-Biega national park. The Fund as well helps communities by supporting public health, education and providing safe drinking water.