Dian Fossey

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Dian Fossey : biography

January 16, 1932 – December 26, 1985

Interest in Africa

Fossey became friends with Mary White "Gaynee" Henry, secretary to the chief administrator at the hospital and wife of one of the doctors, Michael J. Henry. Fossey turned down an offer to join the couple on an African tour due to lack of finances, but in 1963 she borrowed $8,000 (one year’s salary), and went on a seven-week visit to Africa.

In September 1963, she arrived in Nairobi, Kenya. While there, she met actor William Holden, owner of Treetops Hotel, who introduced her to her safari guide, John Alexander. Alexander became her guide for the next seven weeks through Kenya, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zimbabwe. Alexander’s route included visits to Tsavo, Africa’s largest national park, the saline lake of Manyara, famous for attracting giant flocks of flamingos, and the Ngorongoro Crater, well known for its abundant wildlife. The final two sites for her visit were Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania (the archeological site of Louis and Mary Leakey); and Mt. Mikeno in Congo, where in 1959, American zoologist George Schaller had carried out a yearlong pioneering study of the mountain gorilla. At Olduvai Gorge, Fossey met Leakey and his wife while they were examining the area for hominid fossils. Leakey talked to Fossey about the work of Jane Goodall and the importance of long-term research of the great apes. Although she had broken her ankle while visiting the Leakeys, by October 16, Fossey was staying in Walter Baumgartel’s small hotel in Uganda, the Travellers Rest. Baumgartel, an advocate of gorilla conservation, was among the first to see the benefits that tourism could bring to the area, and he introduced Fossey to Kenyan wildlife photographers Joan and Alan Root. The couple agreed to allow Fossey and Alexander to camp behind their own camp, and it was during these few days that Fossey first encountered wild mountain gorillas. After staying with friends in Rhodesia, Fossey returned home to Louisville to repay her loans. She published three articles in The Courier-Journal newspaper, detailing her visit to Africa.

Research in the Congo

When Leakey made an appearance in Louisville while on a nationwide lecture tour, Fossey took the color supplements that had appeared about her African trip in The Courier-Journal to show to Leakey, who remembered her and her interest in mountain gorillas. Three years after the original safari, Leakey suggested that Fossey could undertake a long-term study of the gorillas in the same manner as Jane Goodall had with chimpanzees in Tanzania.

After studying Swahili and auditing a class on primatology during the eight months it took to get her visa and funding, Fossey arrived in Nairobi in December 1966. With the help of Joan Root and Leakey, Fossey acquired the necessary provisions and an old canvas-topped Land Rover which she named “Lily.” On the way to the Congo, Fossey visited the Gombe Stream Research Centre to meet Goodall and observe her research methods with chimpanzees. Accompanied by photographer Alan Root, who helped her obtain work permits for the Virunga mountains, Fossey began her field study at Kabara, in the Congo in early 1967, in the same meadow where Schaller had made his camp seven years earlier. Root taught her basic gorilla tracking, and his tracker Sanwekwe later helped in Fossey’s camp. Living in tents on mainly tinned produce, once a month Fossey would hike down the mountain to “Lily” and make the two-hour drive to the village of Kikumba to restock.

Fossey identified three distinct groups in her study area, but could not get close to them. She eventually found that mimicking their actions and making grunting sounds assured them, together with submissive behaviour and eating of the local celery plant. She later attributed her success with habituating gorillas to her experience working as an occupational therapist with autistic children. Like George Schaller, Fossey relied greatly on individual “noseprints” for identification, initially via sketching and later by camera.