In September 1963, Dian Fossey gathered all of her savings and took out a bank loan to travel to Africa for the first time. She visited Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and other countries.
During her trip, Fossey, who was 31 at the time, met Joan and Alan Root, native wildlife photographers who were working on a documentary of African gorillas at the time. The couple brought Fossey along on one of their treks to search for gorillas.
Peering through thick foliage in a lush mountain forest, Fossey saw the creatures that would become her life’s work. She described how she was captivated by the mountain gorillas in her 1983 autobiographical book, “Gorillas in the Mist”:
“It was their individuality combined with the shyness of their behavior that remained the most captivating impression of this first encounter with the greatest of the great apes. I left Kabara with reluctance but with never a doubt that I would, somehow, return to learn more about the gorillas of the misted mountains.”
A few years later, Fossey, a primatologist, arrived at the hills of the Virunga Volcanoes, a region shared by Rwanda, Uganda and Congo, and set up camp to study the area’s mountain gorillas in the jungles. She quickly realized the gorillas were in dramatic decline, enduring years of poaching, habitat destruction and disease. The mountain gorilla was predicted to become extinct in two or three decades. In the 1960s, there were fewer than 500 in the Virunga mountains.
While many believed apes were ferocious, man-eating beasts, Fossey learned mountain gorillas were largely gentle, with strong family bonds. They were affectionate, intelligent, plant-eating animals. To get close to gorillas, Fossey worked to win their trust. She put gorillas at ease by imitating their activities like scratching and feeding, and copying their vocalizations.
Fossey devoted her life to saving these gentle primates from extinction, and her conservation efforts have been credited with helping gradually increase the population of mountain gorillas.
In December 1985, a few weeks before her 54th birthday, Fossey was murdered. Her body was found in her cabin. She was struck twice on the head and face with a machete. Her murder — which, some theories suggest, was motivated by her campaign against the poachers — remains unsolved.
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