Dian Fossey

Erin Stanley

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Zoologist, Activist, & Anthropologist

Early Life

  • Born January 16, 1932 (San Fransisco, California)
  • Only child of George and Kitty Fossey
  • Parents divorced at age 3
  • Birth father had a drinking problem and trouble with the law
  • Stepfather showed little interest in young Dian Fossey
  • Always loved animals
  • Only childhood pet was a goldfish
  • Encouraged by wealthy stepfather to go into business
  • Enrolled at Marin Junior College as business student
  • Summer after her first year, Fossey worked on a ranch
  • Enrolled at University of California as pre-veterinary medical student (1950)
  • Failed out of her chemistry and physics classes
  • Enrolled at San Jose State College
  • Earned a bachelors degree in occupational therapy (1954)
  • Occupational therapy director at Kosair Children's hospital (Louisville, Kentucky)

Influential Figures

Mary White

  • Coworker at Kosair Hospital, Louissville, Kentucky
  • First planted the idea of Africa in Fossy's mind
  • White's pictures and stories from Africa made Fossey want to visit one day

Dr. Louis Leaky

  • Anthropologist
  • Met Fossey at Olduvai Gorge archeological site, Tanzania (1963)
  • Informed Fossey about Jane Goodall'a work
  • Helped Fossey secure her first research opportunity in Africa (1966)
  • Provided financial support, optimism, and encouragement

George Schaller

  • Biologist & Conservationist
  • First person to conduct a reliable field study of the mountain gorillas of East Africa
  • Studied at Karaba research site (Congo)
  • Wrote multiple books over his experiences and research
  • Fossey nearly memorized his books before starting her research in Africa
  • Fossey adopted Shaller's techniques of identifying gorillas by nose prints and interacting with gorillas by knuckle walking and chewing celery


  • Congolese park guard & experienced gorilla tracker at Karaba meadow, Virungas Mountains, Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Tracked gorillas as a boy for Carl Akeley and as a man for George Schaller

Mutarutka & family

  • Cattle hearders in the lower saddle regions of the Rwandan side of the Virungas
  • Helped with antipoaching efforts
  • Provided food for orphaned gorillas in Fossey's care
  • Helped Fossey rescue her dog from poachers
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  • Located on Mt. Mikeno, Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire)
  • Fossey spent her first year in the Virungas here, studying her first 3 gorilla groups


  • Located between the northern Mt. Visoke and the southern Mt. Karisimbi, Rwanda
  • Founded by Fossey in 1967
  • Still stands as a successful gorilla research center for students and scientists from around the world

Study Groups

"From them I learned to accept the animals on their own terms and never push them beyond the varying levels of tollerance they were willing to give."

-Dian Fossey

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"The man who kills the animals today is the man who kills the people who get in his way tomorrow."

-Dian Fossey


  • No buffer zone exists between the villages, cultivated land and the Virunga parks
  • Gorillas that become too habituated with people are at greater risk from poachers
  • The illegal grazing of cattle within the park and gorilla territory harmed the land, flattening vegitation and taking living and feeding area away from park wildlife
  • Human encroachment and land cultivation deprive the gorillas of necessary vegetation e.g. bamboo and Hagenia zones were cleared for pyrethrum cultivation
  • Gorillas on the lower slopes of the mountains are forced to move to higher elevations and into other groups territories, increasing violent group interactions and territorial conflicts
  • Fossey found numerous gorillas that had been killed by poachers (often while protecting their young, but also murdered for their "trophies" (heads and hands)
  • Dozens of gorillas were ensnared in poacher's traps
  • Fossey feared that the mountain gorilla would be discovered and extinct in the same decade

Active Conservation

  • Fossey confiscated and destroyed poacher's traps and weapons and released ensnared animals
  • Directly confronted poachers
  • Chased away cattle
  • Organized her own group of Africans from nearby villages to patrol the Virunga mountains parks
  • Used her own funds to provide boots, clothing, rain gear, food, and wages for anti-poaching patrols
  • Attempted to scare off poachers by wearing masks and threatening them

Theoretical Conservation

  • Tourism in the parks (guided tours to see the gorillas, places for tourists to stay in the Virungas, educational opportunities to teach tourists about the gorillas)
  • Fossey recognized the positive change and revenue that could result from such conservation but believed that it was impractical at the time
  • Fossey believed this was a reasonable goal for the future, but it would take too long to achieve so active conservation was the only option

International Attention

  • Digit Fund (The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International)
  • National Geographic Articles
  • Gorillas in the Mist (book and movie)

Book Trailer

Gorillas in the Mist book trailer


Fossey's observations and involvements in the Virunga mountains resulted in the endangered mountain gorillas' survival. Since her time there, the gorilla populations of the Virungas have increased to number around 480 gorillas, a significant increase from the 260 gorillas when Fossey first arrived in Africa in the 1960s. In 2015 alone, Fossey's Digit Fund, later renamed The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, raised over 3 million dollars. This money is used to secure anti-poaching measures and park patrols, fund the Karisoke Reseach Center, as well as to provide assistence and education to the communities surrounding the Virungas. Without Fossey's selfless interest in the mountian gorillas and her persistent involvement in the conservation of the Virungas, both could have been completely devestated in the last century.

Political Cartoon

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Support Active Conservation

In the cartoon, the tourists arrive to the mountain to see the gorillas; however, in the time it took for the park get ready for the tourists, the gorillas have gone extinct,p and the forest destroyed. This shows the importance of active conservation over theoretical conservation for only by taking action today will this future be prevented. Throughout her last twenty years, Fossey strongly supported active conservation, repeatedly stating that tomorrow will be too late.

Tragic Death

On the morning of December 27, 1985, Dian Fossey was found murdered in her Karisoke cabin. She had been hit twice on the head and face with a machette that she has confiscated from poachers. Forced entry was evident however the true story of her death remains a mystery. After much debating, local Rwandan authorities charged one of Fossey's former trackers along with one of her former research students with her murder. The student fled to America, and the tracker was later found hanged in his jail cell. In 2001, Rwandan authority, Protais Zigiranyiraz, was accused of ordering Fossey's murder however he was never charged for murder. Hence, Fossey's death remains a mystery.

Conpare/Contrast Time Period

Fossey's perception today

If Dian Fossey were alive today, I believe that she would have been just as persistent in her research and activism; however, she would have been percieved in a different way. While the need for conservation of land and endangered species was recognized in the last twenty years of Fossey's life, the true consequences and effects of such actions (or the neglect of such actions) were not recognized and accepted to the extent that they are today. Today, poaching is fought against by more governments, more zoos are more careful about where their animals come from, and more people care about the natural world around them. One reason for this change is the recent influx of advanced technologies and communications. Today, when a gorilla is tragically murdered in the Virungas and is found by a park patrol, they have the power to snap a photo to post on the world-wide web. In a matter of seconds, people in America, Germany, Thailand, Russia, and Argentina all have access to it. Today, few things are hidden from the public's eyes. Hence, now that the world has the opportunity to witness the injustices in the Virungas first hand, millions more are willing to take part in the fight Dian Fossey began.

Fossey's Cause Today

I believe that, had she not been murdered, Fossey would have followed the same route taken by her own beloved Digit Fund. (The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International) today, the organization advocates for greater international involvement and uses a great portion of its funds to support education. In her book Gorillas in the Mist, Fossey stressed the need for the Africans themselves to understand and respect the lives and needs of the gorillas. She repeatedly stated that in order for any real change to occur, they must acknowledge the impact that the gorillas and Virungas have on them. They must understand nature's purpose. Therefore, today, Fossey would have greatly supported education in Africa which was, to her, one of the most important steps in a bright future.

If I Had Fossey's Skills

One of the most important skills was simply her determination. A year before Fossey's first trip to Africa, she kmew mothing about the country, language, or mountain gorillas except that she wanted to know it all. Given this, it is absolutely amazing how much Fossey was able to accomplish in the last twenty years of her life. If I had this bravery and determination, I too would want to make an adventurous move to another country. I have always been interested in Africa, so I would probably work with families and children in underdeveloped countries; however, I also believe that Fossey's determination could be put to another great use: tackling global warming. This is a cause that, I'll admit, I know very little about, except for that it is happening and that it is melting the arctic, raising sea levels, and making our summers even hotter. While I know that it is acknowledged, I believe that this is a cause like Dian Fossey's. It is not addressed enough, and pretty soon, it will be too late. Therefore, I believe that, with Dian Fossey's determination, I would put an end to global warming.

Fossey's American Experience

While Dian Fossey may not have held the rags to riches story of the stereotypical American Dream, Fossey certainly held the sheer determination and bravery. Growing up in a family that had little faith in her, Fossey never let her past get in the way of her future. She fought for what she believed in, even when others pushed her down, and she lived the rough life of a rags to riches story through her time in Africa. Although Fossey made it look easy, life in the Virungas Mountains was not easy. Dozens of students never even made it up the mountain; others went crazy from the isolation and lack of basic goods and resources that civilization takes for granted. Every day that Fossey ventured off from camp she put herself in danger from poisinous plants, poachers, and defensive animals. However, through all this, Fossey never gave up. Dian Fossey truely held the life of an American – fighing with all she had and dying for something she believed in.

Defining Quote

"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's last journal entry (1985)

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