Dian Fossey Profile

Dian Fossey was a prominent American primatologist whose work studying mountain gorillas in Rwanda improved awareness and promoted the protection of the species.

Primatologist Dian Fossey and Digit

Born on 16th January 1932 in San Francisco, California, Dian Fossey had a turbulent up bringing which led her to find comfort in animals. A keen horse rider throughout school, Fossey enrolled in a pre-veterinary course at the University of California with the intention of forging a career working with animals.

Unfortunately, due to a difficulty with chemistry and physics, Fossey withdrew from the programme, going on to earn a degree in occupational therapy which she subsequently found work in.

Silverback mountain gorilla

Silverback mountain gorilla

Africa and Mountain Gorillas

In 1963, Fossey took a career break, borrowing a years wages in order to travel to Africa where she would meet paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey and photographers Joan and Alan Root on her travels. The two couples introduced her to the idea of studying mountain gorillas in the wild.

Three years later Louis Leakey suggested that Fossey could undertake a study of mountain gorillas, much like another primatologist Jane Goodall was doing with Tanzanian chimpanzees, which Fossey seized with both hands.

After whirlwind courses in Swahlili and primatology, Fossey managed to secure a visa and funding to begin her study. Arriving in Nairobi in December 1966, Fossey met up with Alan Root and went to visit Goodall and observe her study before starting her own in the Virunga mountains of Congo.

Relating her initial work with the gorillas with her occupational therapist experience, Fossey found that shadowing the gorillas actions, vocalisations and submissive behaviour allowed her to get close to three groups.

Congo was undergoing a major upheaval at the time, and was under the control of the army. In 1967, Fossey and her research team were escorted off the mountain by the military, before bribing her way into Uganda.

After meeting with Leakey, Fossey decided to restart her study in Rwanda, just over the border from her earlier Congo study.


Due to the larger incidence of poaching in the area, it took Fossey and her research team longer to habituate the gorillas to their presence.

Although illegal, poaching was a major problem in the mountains, with poachers paying a small fortune to the park's conservators to turn a blind eye. Fossey witnessed the horror of poaching several times, where poachers would slaughter whole groups in order to capture young gorillas or remove body parts.

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Despite her active opposition to poaching, Fossey struggled to reverse the problem and in 1977 Digit, her favourite gorilla, was killed protecting his group. As a result Fossey set up the Digit Fund, which would go on to become the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, in order to raise funds for anti-poaching patrols.

Gorillas in the Mist

Fossey wrote the book Gorillas in the Mist in 1983, an autobiographical work of her scientific studies, which along with an article for the magazine Life written by Harold Hayes formed the basis for the Sigourney Weaver film of the same name.


When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.

On Boxing Day 1985 Fossey was murdered in her cabin and the case currently remains open. The above quote was Fossey's last entry into her diary.