Dian Fossey is one of those rare biologists in that her name and work are known by a vast proportion of the general public. Nearly everybody knows of her work, perhaps by the title of the book she wrote describing her scientific career, “Gorillas in the Mist“.
Fossey’s incredible 18-year study of Rwandan mountain gorillas and her conservation work are testament to the passion she had for her work. However, it isn’t just the work for which Fossey is best known that I wanted to draw people’s attention to in this post. Fossey’s early career also featured defining moments that many of us will recognise from our own lives and lessons from which we can learn.
Like many young people, Fossey took a rather meandering route to finding her ideal job. She was encouraged by her stepfather to study business at college but, after one year, she decided to foster her love of animals by switching to a pre-veterinary course. Somewhat surprisingly, given her famous career, Fossey shortly changed courses once more thanks to struggles with her Physics and Chemistry modules. After eventually completing a course in Occupational Therapy, Fossey began a career working with tuberculosis patients and then crippled children.
It wasn’t until she was 31 years old that Dian Fossey discovered her real passion. In 1963 she fulfilled a long-held dream and went travelling around Africa. There she met a pair of wildlife photographers – Joan and Alan Root – in Uganda who were photographing mountain gorillas in the Virunga mountains. It was at this point that she began to transform into the Dian Fossey we are familiar with. The Roots took her with them to watch the gorillas and, when it came time to leave, Fossey had resolved to return and learn more about the species that had so captivated her during her time there.
Many young professionals worry that they don’t know what to do with their lives. I see Fossey’s life as an encouraging reminder that even some of our most celebrated individuals only worked out what they wanted to do at a relatively late age.
During her time in Africa, Dian Fossey met archaeologist and naturalist Louis Leakey, who was funding research into the great apes at the time. When she returned home, Fossey wrote three articles about her time in Africa, which she had published in local newspaper, ‘The Courier-Journal’. Her eagerness to tell the world about this subject that so fascinated her would turn out to be a great aid in achieving her goal.
In 1966, Leakey gave a series of lectures that brought him to Fossey’s home of Louisville. Upon speaking to her again and being impressed by the articles she’d had published, Leakey invited Fossey to lead a long-term field project in Africa to study the gorillas; the only stipulation being that she would have to have her appendix removed first. Fossey willingly went ahead with the operation only the find out that Leakey had just been trying to see how enthusiastic she was about the project!
This goes to show just how much fervour for one’s work can pave the way for even greater success. Had Dian Fossey not spent her free time writing about her trip to Africa and had she not being willing to go ahead with the appendectomy, she might not have been given this life-changing opportunity. Now, I wouldn’t encourage anyone to go around offering up bodily organs in exchange for research grants, but Fossey is a prime example of how pushing yourself that bit further than other people can pay dividends in a big way.
Gorillas in the Mist
Dian Fossey was finally able to begin her studies into the mountain gorillas in early 1967. Based in the Kabara meadow in the Congo, Fossey would venture into the forests to track and observe the gorillas. Through careful study and considerable patience, she identified three distinct social groups of gorillas in the region, which she was able to get close to by mimicking their grooming, grunting and eating habits so they were more accepting of her presence.
When Fossey’s work was disrupted by a civil war in the Congo, she relocated to a national park on the Rwandan side of the mountains in September 1967. There she established the ‘Karisoke Research Centre’, naming the camp after the two volcanoes in-between which it was nestled. This move to Rwanda would eventually inspire Fossey’s famed conservation work as the gorillas in this region were under constant threat from poachers.
Laws prohibiting poaching were rarely enforced in the park, with bribery of conservation staff rife. Given her love of, and fascination with, the gorillas, it is easy to understand how Fossey was affected when she came across areas in which the apes had been slaughtered. Consequently, she financed her own team to destroy poachers’ traps and assisted in several arrests.
Fossey’s efforts protected the gorillas in her study area for a decade, whilst those outside of her protection suffered extensive poaching. Having been able to interact with some of the apes in her area, again by mimicking their actions, Fossey also grew rather attached to them; forming a particularly strong bond with a male she named Digit. Tragically, on New Year’s Eve in 1977, Digit’s group was attacked by poachers and he died protecting the other gorillas. Digit was decapitated and his hands were severed so they could be sold as ashtrays.
In the wake of Digit’s death, Fossey set up the ‘Digit Fund’ to finance anti-poaching patrols. Now renamed in some countries, this fund still works to protect mountain gorillas and operate Fossey’s Karisoke Research Centre. In its formative years, Fossey used the fund to great effect, destroying nearly 1,000 traps in one 4 month period. The fund acts as her legacy since her untimely death in December 1985, when she was found murdered in her mountain cabin in a case that has never been solved…
Post by: Ian Wilson