Why is Dian Fossey a key icon for gorilla tourism and conservation?

Not long after arriving in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda, your guides will likely be telling you plenty of stories about an American woman by the name of Dian Fossey.

A researcher, activist, and advocate for the mountain gorilla, her actions played a big role in ensuring this species survival to this point in history. In this post, we’ll talk about why she is a key icon for gorilla tourism and conservation.

She humanized our closest cousins in the animal kingdom

For a long time, we had viewed ourselves in exceptional terms in relation to the rest of the animal kingdom. Scientists had come to see all animals (except for us Homo Sapiens) as lacking the self-awareness and intelligence that would afford them the respect we show to fellow human beings.

Dian Fossey Hike

Then, from the 1960s through to the 1980s, a woman by the name of Dian Fossey came along and showed us a species of primate which made this old stance extremely uncomfortable to maintain. It quickly emerged that our evolutionary predecessors shared more of our mannerisms that we ever realized.

This led to us rethinking practices which had been contributing to their slide towards extinction – thanks to this, not only are they still around in 2018, their population is now on the increase.

She collected a great deal of research about how they live

Dian Fossey’s journey from California to a research camp in Rwanda was a turbulent yet curious one. Pressured by her father to study business in college, young Dian instead opted to study pre-veterinary courses after a summer spent on the family ranch in Montana.

Dian Fossey Hike

Despite being cut off financially for this stance, she quickly found work to support herself, allowing her to complete her education as an occupational therapist after she found physics and chemistry too difficult an academic stumbling block to overcome.

In the course of working with children who had been afflicted with tuberculosis, she met Mary and Michael Henry, who had ties to Africa. While she couldn’t travel with them at first due to her financial situation, she eventually borrowed the money she needed to afford the trip in the early 1960s.

During this trip, she met people like Louis and Mary Leakey who introduced her to others who had been involved in tracking the elusive mountain gorilla. It was on a camping trip with wildlife photographers where she came face to face with mountain gorillas for the first time.

Though she briefly returned to America to repay the loans she took out for the trip, she had gotten a taste of the wilds of Africa and was never the same for it.

On a visit to the USA, Dian met up with Louis Leakey, who was enthralled with the pictures she had snapped of the gorillas. At that point, he suggested she should study them in the same fashion Jane Goodall had done with chimpanzees.

She agreed, and with that, Leakey arranged for research funding so she could begin her new life in the wilds of East Africa. In the decades to come, she contributed much to what we know about mountain gorillas, from social hierarchies to the vocalizations they use to communicate with each other.

Eventually, she published a book, Gorillas in the Mist, which served as not only her memoir but as an all-encompassing tome of everything she had learned about gorillas during her time in the mountains of Rwanda.

She led the charge against the poaching and exploitation of mountain gorillas

Not long after her arrival, though, it became apparent to Dian why mountain gorilla numbers were sharply declining. Despite being situated within the bounds of a national park, poachers regularly operated with impunity.

Dian Fossey Hike

She even witnessed the kidnapping of young gorillas on behalf of those looking to relocate them to zoos in Europe, but it wasn’t until the brutal killing of Digit, her favourite gorilla research subject, that she resolved to take action against these criminals.

Starting a charity in the name of her fallen friend, she raised money to hire her own patrol. In the first four months of existence, they busted up almost 1,000 traps – in the same time period, official park rangers destroyed zero traps in the part of the park under their care, elephants were eradicated, and at least 12 gorillas were killed.

Combined with her advocacy back home, the plight of the mountain gorilla became a subject on the nightly news, marking the beginning of a turnaround in the fortunes of this threatened species.

She became a martyr for her cause

Sadly, while Dian Fossey’s activism had done a great deal of good for the mountain gorillas she dearly loved, it had also made her a target. It eventually caught up with her: on the morning of December 27th, 1985, one of her staffers discovered her body in her cabin. They found her lying face up in bed, slain by a single, deep machete wound to the head as she slept.

Dian Fossey tomb Hike

While it was attributed to poachers, many could be considered a suspect, as her work also threatened the livelihood of farmers, as well as government officials who wanted to turn the Virunga Mountains into a mass tourism operation.

According to Rwandan investigators, it is even possible one of her former colleagues (Wayne McGuire) sought to kill her to steal the manuscript to the sequel to Gorillas in the Mist. However, this assertion is questionable at best, and to this day Wayne McGuire steadfastly denies he was the one who murdered Ms Fossey.

At the end of the day, it appears most likely poachers were the ones responsible, as she had been actively involved in disrupting their operations and having them arrested, charged, and convicted by the authorities.

Kalitta Belinda is the Tours Manager at Wild Rwanda Safaris.

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Comments (3)

  1. Juan Ovalle says:

    Such a sad and tragic death of someone who was doing a great deal of good in the world.

  2. Louisa says:

    It is so important to celebrate Diane’s work even more so that she died fighting animal rights. It’s a real shame that with all the amazing work she did in helping Gorillas that it made her a target for vicious cruel people. I actually loved reading a great post celebrating her amazing work. Sometimes we need to remember all the hard work that has gone on to help us move forward. Such beautiful amazing creatures totally worth fighting for.

  3. Sally Arnold says:

    We need more Dian Fossey figures. In a week when statistics have been announced that numbers of wildlife have declined by 60% in recent years we need heroic iconic figures to draw attention to the depletion of our wildlife heritage.

    When Tracey Edwards was asked to compare her recent voyage across the world’s oceans, re-enacting her epic voyage of 1989, her immediate answer focused on her concern on the massive decrease of wildlife.

    It is important that we honour the memory of Dian Fossey and inspire future generations to value wildlife and live their lives doing their best to increase numbers – not endanger them.

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