Dian Fossey

Dian Fossey bigraphy, stories - American zoologist

Dian Fossey : biography

January 16, 1932 – December 26, 1985

Dian Fossey ( January 16, 1932 – c. December 27, 1985) was an American zoologist who undertook an extensive study of gorilla groups over a period of 18 years. She studied them daily in the mountain forests of Rwanda, initially encouraged to work there by famous anthropologist Louis Leakey. She was murdered in 1985; the case remains open.Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume 5: Completing the Twentieth Century by Susan Ware and Stacy Braukman P. 221, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study – (2004) ISBN 0-674-01488-X

Called one of the foremost primatologists in the world while she was alive, Fossey, along with Jane Goodall and Birutė Galdikas, was part of the so-called Leakey’s Angels, a group of three prominent researchers on primates (Fossey on gorillas; Goodall on chimpanzees; and Galdikas on orangutans) sent by anthropologist Louis Leakey to study great apes in their natural environments.


Six months before her murder, AP East Africa Correspondent Barry Shlachter quoted Fossey in one of her last interviews as saying that she was habituating gorillas only to whites because blacks were the poachers. They said Rwandans whom she suspected of poaching had been stripped and beaten with stinging nettles by Fossey, who removed their animist amulets, set fire to one villager’s home and kidnapped their child, holding the little girl hostage for days. This extreme case of Dian’s vengeance, combined with reports of the torture of poachers, triggered real concern from conservationists and Rwandan officials about Fossey’s mental stability and responsibility as a research center director. After her murder, Fossey’s National Geographic editor, Mary Smith, told Shlachter that the famed gorilla expert on visits to the United States would "load up on firecrackers, cheap toys and magic tricks as part of her method to mystify the (Africans) — hold them at bay."Shlachter, Barry. "A Neighborhood Feud? The strange life and gruesome death of Dian Fossey, July 8, 1986, Boston Phoenix

Writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2002, Tunku Varadarajan described Fossey at the end of her life as colourful, controversial, and "a racist alcoholic who regarded her gorillas as better than the African people who lived around them."


Fossey was discovered murdered in the bedroom of her cabin in Virunga Mountains, Rwanda, in late December 1985. She was discovered away from a hole that her assailant(s) had apparently cut in the wall of the cabin.

She was presumably in the act of loading her weapon when she was murdered, but had picked the wrong type of ammunition during the struggle; the cabin was littered with broken glass and overturned furniture. Robbery was not believed to be the motive for the crime, as Fossey’s valuables were still in the cabin: thousands of dollars in cash, travelers’ checks, and photo equipment remained untouched.

The last entry in her diary read:

Fossey is buried at Karisoke, in a site that she herself had constructed for her deceased gorilla friends. She was buried in the gorilla graveyard next to Digit, and near many gorillas killed by poachers. Memorial services were also held in New York, Washington, and California.

After Fossey’s death, her entire staff, including Rwelekana, a tracker she had fired months before, were arrested. All but Rwelekana, who was later found dead in prison, supposedly having hanged himself, were released. Rwandan courts later tried and convicted Wayne McGuire, Fossey’s last research assistant at Karisoke, for her murder. McGuire was convicted in absentia after he had returned to the United States following the murder, and because no extradition treaty exists between the U.S. and Rwanda, McGuire, whose guilt is still widely questioned, will not serve his sentence unless he returns to Rwanda’s jurisdiction.

Fossey’s will stated that all her money (including proceeds from the film of Gorillas in the Mist) should go to the Digit Fund to finance anti-poaching patrols. However, her mother Kitty Price challenged the will and won.