“When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.” —Diane Fossey
Born this day in 1932: Diane Fossey (1932–1985), primatologist and champion of the mountain gorilla
Diane Fossey, a native of San Francisco, was a trained occupational therapist before meeting renown anthropologist Louis Leakey on a trip to eastern Africa. From a young age Fossey had dreams of doing animal research in Africa. Leakey gave her the push she needed to undertake a long-term study of the endangered mountain gorilla in its natural habitat.
In 1967 Fossey established the Karisoke Research Center. For years she patiently courted the gorillas of the Virunga Mountains, located where Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo meet. She spent years among the gorillas, leaving only long enough to earn a doctorate degree in zoology from Cambridge and to fufill teaching obligations stateside. Fossey became the leading authority on the mountain gorillas, adding greatly to the body of knowledge concerning their diet, mating and reproduction, behavior, communication, and social patterns. And she dispelled long-held myths about the creatures she described as “introverted, peaceful vegetarian[s].”
The arduous life of a bush researcher was the least of the dangers Fossey faced. Political unrest forced Fossey to leave her first camp in Congo and set up a new one in Rwanda. Conflicts with poachers, however, would be her undoing. Although the Virunga gorillas ranged in a protected national park, poaching was common. Encroachments into the park, whether for kidnapping infant gorillas for illegal trade, illegal charcoal production, or illegal game hunting, greatly disrupted gorilla society. In Fossey’s time spent studying the gorillas, the small, gravely endangered population was halved. On several occasions, and probably many more, gorillas were deliberately killed by humans.
Fossey destroyed poachers’ traps when she came across them and aided in their arrest of people illegally exploiting the park. After the murder of some of her study subjects, she intensified her campaign against poachers. In 1985 Fossey was hacked to death, presumably by poachers. No one was ever held accountable for her death.
Fossey is author of Gorillas in the Mist (1983), an account of her years among the great apes. (It was made into a movie in 1988, starring Sigourney Weaver as Fossey.) Here is an article she wrote for National Geographic in 1970 and another from 1971.
Here is a NatGeo video about the ongoing pressures on the gorilla, the park, and the people of the region.
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