There are some women who seem to be born with a singular purpose — who spend their whole life working toward a goal. Dian was not one of these women. Growing up, she was an accomplished horseback rider who loved animals, but she didn’t initially consider a career working with them – nor did she know she’d become a dedicated researcher and conservationist, spending years living with mountain gorillas in Rwanda. In fact, when she started college, she decided to follow in her step-father’s footsteps and pursue a degree in business.
However, a summer spent working with animals on a ranch in Montana convinced her to change her focus to veterinary science, but the subject didn’t sit comfortably with her, and she again decided to shift her focus — this time to occupational therapy.
Dian stuck with occupational therapy for a while, getting her degree and acquiring a full-time position. Although she enjoyed it, she still wasn’t sated and longed for adventure. When a friend shared photos from a recent trip to Africa, Dian became convinced that Africa was where that adventure lied.
It took years of saving, and eventually taking out a bank loan, but in September of 1963 Dian finally made it to Africa. She set about touring the countryside, visiting the flamingos at the Lake of Manyara, observing the wildlife at Ngorongoro Crater, and eventually the archaeological site of Louis and Mary Leakey. It was there that she had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Louis Leakey, and it was this conversation that would change the course of her life.
Dr. Leakey told Dian about Jane Goodall, who at the time was three years in to her fieldwork with the chimpanzees. Dr. Leakey was a firm believer in the importance of conducting long-term primatology research in the field, and he shared this belief with Dian during their conversation. He also gave her the opportunity to explore some of his excavated sites, which unfortunately resulted in a fall that led to a broken ankle. This injury could have derailed her plans to see the mountain gorillas — the last and final stop on Dian’s African adventure — but it only made her more determined.
She travelled to Uganda, where the owner of the hotel she was staying in encouraged her to contact two wildlife photographers in the area who were photographing the gorillas for a documentary. Dian took his advice and reached out, and the photographers allowed her to come along on one of their journeys into the forest. On this journey, she was able to observe and photograph the gorillas, and just like that, her life found its focus. She knew she was destined to come back.
Unfortunately, she also knew she had to pay off that loan, so she returned to her job in Kentucky and began working to not only pay her debt but also find a way to return to Africa. Meanwhile, she began writing and publishing articles about her trip.
When an opportunity presented itself to once again meet with Dr. Leakey – this time, not in Africa, but in a nearby Kentucky town – Dian jumped at the opportunity. She waited in line after his lecture and, when it was her turn to speak, she showed him the articles she had written.
Intrigued, Leakey decided to speak with her further, and he soon began to suspect that she might be the ideal candidate to lead a long-term study of the gorillas in Africa. However, he questioned her commitment. In a rather dark effort to gauge her seriousness, he told he that before she could work on the project, she would need to have her appendix removed as she would be too far from medical help should it rupture. While he later wrote to her to tell her this was a joke, Fossey and already undergone the surgery.
Roughly 8 months later, she was on her way to Africa — sans appendix.
While Dian had support getting from Kenya to the Congo, acquiring permits and setting up camp, when she was settled, she finally realised how alone she would be. Her house would be a small tent, and she was mostly to live on tinned food and potatoes. But tracking gorillas was her only focus and even on her first day, she managed to see one.
When expert tracker Senwekwe arrived, he taught Dian everything he knew. She was soon to discover three gorilla groups in her study location. Over time, she managed to gain their trust, and began to identify individuals through sketching their nose prints. She kept detailed documentation of each sighting.
In 1967, when the political situation in the Congo was escalating, armed soldiers, fearing for her safety, escorted her off the mountain. She spent two weeks under military guard. Despite the US Embassy warning her not to go back, Dian got permission to continue her work. This time however, she’d be on the Rwandan side of the Virungas.
Dian established the Karisoke Research Center in the September of 1967, and it was to become an internationally respected centre for research. She began the process of getting to know the new gorillas. George Schaller’s text, The Mountain Gorilla, was an inspiration to her, and she referred to it as a guide to help habituate the gorillas, often using “knuckle-walking” to get closer to them for observation.
The following year, the National Geographic Society sent a photographer to her camp. The photographs that were published as a result showed Dian among the gorillas, and drew much attention to the plight facing the species.
Dian would spend 18 years of her life in the Virunga mountains, working to better understand and protect the mountain gorillas. Her work earned her a PhD from Cambridge and appeared in several National Geographic articles. Eventually, she wrote a book about her life in Rwanda, Gorillas in the Mist, which was turned into a movie starring Sigourney Weaver. Dian’s writings changed the way people perceived the mountain gorilla and worked wonders for their conservation efforts.
Unfortunately, however, poachers were still a serious problem, and Dian began spending more and more of her time actively trying to fight them. In 1985, 18 years after her move to Africa, Dian was found murdered in her home — she had been hacked to death with a machete. Though her murder was never solved, most suspect she was killed by the poachers she was fighting. It was a tragic end to a life spent trying to protect others. But it was not a life spent in vain. Thanks to her efforts, the mountain gorillas did not go extinct. Instead, they became the only species of great ape to actually experience a population increase.