Tribute: The legendary scientist Dr. Dian Fossey

The legendary scientist Dr. Dian Fossey’s passion for the endangered mountain gorillas led her to pioneer what she called “active conservation.” When Dian Fossey set up her research center in Volcanoes National Park, the park guards were underpaid and lacked the training and equipment needed for their dangerous job. The trade in “bushmeat,” live infant gorillas and souvenirs such as ashtrays made from severed gorilla hands flourished in nearby towns. In addition, people in villages surrounding the park would illegally enter the forest to graze cattle or set traps for game that could also harm gorillas. As Fossey conducted her observations of the gorillas, she became increasingly aware that these animals were in grave danger, and she feared that they would disappear by the end of the twentieth century.


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Dr. Dian Fossey, would have turned 84 on Jan. 16 of this year. Although she was killed while trying to find ways to protect her beloved mountain gorillas, her work lives on in so many ways, especially through the daily monitoring and protection that the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund now provides daily. The mountain gorilla population has nearly doubled since her time, as a direct result of the work she started, and this is certainly her biggest legacy.


Dian Fossey with gorilla
Fossey was a fascinating individual in many ways, as well as a courageous and brilliant scientist. We collected a few interesting facts about her life and legacy and present those here, in honor of what would have been her 84th birthday. * Some 275 scientific studies based on work at Fossey’s Karisoke Research Center have now been published in academic journals. Indeed, most of what is scientifically known about gorillas comes from work conducted at Karisoke or using the enormous Karisoke gorilla database.* We still monitor two gorillas who were first seen, and named, by Dian Fossey. They are the dominant silverback Cantsbee (37 years old) and high-ranking female Poppy (38 years old). They are also the oldest gorillas we currently monitor.

* Dian Fossey is buried in Rwanda, in a gravesite next to her favorite gorilla Digit (who was killed by poachers) and other gorillas.

* While making the movie “Gorillas in the Mist,” based on Fossey’s book, actress Sigourney Weaver also fell in love with the gorillas. She has been honorary chair of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund ever since.

Active conservation

Fossey with snares removed from the forest

Fossey began to destroy traps, confront poachers, and chase away cattle. She used her own funds to supply the park guards with boots, uniforms, food and additional salaries, and she even hired some of her own anti-poachers. She referred to her tactics as “active conservation.”  She was convinced that without immediate and decisive action, long-term gorilla conservation goals would be useless, as there would eventually be nothing left to save.


Fossey’s war with poachers intensified following the tragic murder of her favorite gorilla, Digit, in 1977. After Digit died from multiple stab wounds while defending his family, who escaped safely, his attackers cut off his head and hands. Fossey’s methods soon became more unorthodox and controversial, as she attempted to frighten the poachers with masks and threats of violence.

Bringing gorilla conservation to the international public

After Digit’s death, Fossey also began a campaign to gain the public’s support for gorilla conservation, founding the Digit Fund for that purpose. She had already attracted attention to their cause through her articles in National Geographic. Following her own tragic murder in 1987, the Digit Fund was renamed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.

The success of Fossey’s book Gorillas in the Mist also brought the plight of the mountain gorilla to the world’s attention. In 1988, a movie based on the book reached large audiences. Sigourney Weaver, who played Dian Fossey in the movie, became the honorary chair of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. With the success of both the book and the movie, more people now understand that gorillas are “gentle giants,” with much to teach us and the right to survive in their forest home.

Conservation at Karisoke™ today


Karisoke trackers on Mt. Visoke

The Karisoke™ Research Center continues to employ armed guards to this day to protect the gorillas. Karisoke’s guards find and remove some 1,000 snares each year and help bring poachers to justice.  They also support the national park staff by conducting joint patrols throughout the gorillas’ habitat.  You can help support their work by “adopting” a Karisoke anti-poaching patrol.


Karisoke has also established supportive relations with the communities surrounding the park. It operates many local health and education programs, such as treating intestinal parasites, providing clean water, rehabilitating health clinics, providing conservation education and supporting the Bisate School.

Gorilla conservation at Karisoke™ succeeds

The gorilla conservation work begun by Dian Fossey has exceeded her expectations. The latest census of mountain gorillas in the Virungas found that they increased from about 260 individuals in Fossey’s day to 480 by 2010, making mountain gorillas the only great ape population to have increased in number during recent decades.


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