Dian Fossey

Dian Fossey – all about the Iron lady who studied gorillas and was killed in Africa

In 1967, Fossey arrived at Kabara meadow, Schaller’s base in Congo’s Parc National des Virunga. After only six and a half months, political troubles forced her to move towards the border of the Rwandan sector of the Virunga Volcanoes, where she set up a camp. Making a combination of the names Karisimbi and Visoke, the two nearest volcanoes, she christened the site Karisoke, it was to become one of the longest running field studies in primatology.


Dian Fossey spent 18 years in the virungas studying about the mountain gorillas in conditions of great difficulty. Her camp, karisoke was at 10000feet and all provisions had to be carried out every after two weeks. She made astonishing discoveries and was blessed with a feel for individuals who were different. Her break through was to learn to identify the animals individually as she followed them in their family groups. When she knew fully about the gorilla family life unfolded before her with affection, stubbornness, jelousy, courage and caring all on display. She gave the animals names so the group 5 dominant male for instance became Beethoven and Fossey moved beyond pure science into something like rainforest social work

Fossey’s first task was to habituate gorillas to the presence of observers. This process has always been easier with mountain gorillas than western population because the thick ground vegetation makes mountain gorillas easier to track.

Following Schaller’s technique for identifying individuals, Fossey drew “nose prints” the pattern of wrinkles above gorillas’ nostrils. When she was near a group of gorillas, she dropped to her hands and knees and crawled after them, giving “belch” vocalizations and mimicking their feeding sounds. These were the methods that all researchers employed in those early years. By 1972, Fossey, with the help of newly arrived students such as Sandy Harcourt, had habituated three study groups, including the well-known Groups 4 and 5. The doors had been opened into the lives of individual gorillas whose fortunes would be tracked for decades to come. Today, researchers still observe the descendants of gorillas that Fossey first contacted. For example, the males Titus and Pablo, Ziz, Shinda, and Cantsbee silverbacks were all born in the 1970s.

When Dian Fossey was murdered in her cabin at the end of 1984, many wondered if the long term research would die with her. But by then, her legacy had a momentum and reached far beyond any one individual. The Digit Fund, which would eventually become the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI), was established to ensure Karisoke’s continuation.

While the research center that Dian Fossey set up no longer physically exists in the forest, its activities have never ceased. Karisoke field assistants and personnel of Rwanda’s Parc National des Volcans, working with research directors, Liz Williamson and, later, Katie Fawcett, have followed research and tourist groups in Rwanda throughout periods of violence.