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Dian Fossey, the scientist who changed the way we look at gorillas

THE pioneer in animal protection


Dian Fossey watches over Pucker Puss, a two-year-old female mountain gorilla, and Coco, a 16-month-old male, in the jungle of Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. She cared for the two gorillas until they recovered from their family's slaughter by poachers.

Dian Fossey meticulously kept a record of the health, relationships and activities of each gorilla. In 1972, she noticed that her favorite gorilla, answering the name of Digit, began to approach her to play with her. "He now comes towards me on his own, spins, rolls on the ground, throws his legs in the air while wearing a rather comical smile," she wrote.

Photograph by Robert IM Campbell, National Geographic Creative

Animal welfare icon, Dian Fossey. Recognized late by her peers, this committed scientist dedicated her life to the Rwandan mountain gorillas, before being mysteriously killed.

A lonely little girl

Born in 1932 in California, Dian Fossey grew up with a bossy stepfather. As a child, in San Francisco, she was forced to take her meals alone; and becomes fond of his only companion at home: a goldfish.

Dian already knows that she will live surrounded by animals. She wants to become a veterinarian but fails her physics and chemistry exams and turns to occupational therapy. 

For her first job, she is hired with autistic children. She would later say that this experience helped her apprehend mountain gorillas.

At 31, Dian dreams of communicating with wild animals, and takes on debt up to one year of his salary to visit Africa. Her encounter with mountain gorillas upsets her. Determined to see them again, she landed a job in 1961 and moved to Rwanda to study them. To approach gorillas, the scientist reproduces their behavior. She walks on all fours, nibbles plants, learns their cries, scratches ...

"The woman who lives without a man in the forest"

Dian Fossey is nicknamed by Rwandans Nyiramachabelli, ie: "The woman who lives without a man in the forest". Marie-Claude de Montjoye, professor at the Museum of Natural History, remembers this very special woman, on the set of Antenne 2 in 1985: “She was close to them, she had the same gestures, the same cries, she was integrated near the big males, which was difficult. [...] It is certain that she had returned to the gorilla state if I may say so. That is to say that she undoubtedly had a bad relationship with another species: the human species. ”

Criticized by part of the scientific community for its lack of critical distance from its object of study, it does not renounce its proximity to the primates, with whom it now lives. The researcher refuses to use tranquilizers to list gorillas. She succeeds in identifying them by their nasal imprint, gives them names, spends hours in their company to observe them, study them, understand them.  

A scientist finally recognized

She eventually won the recognition of her peers by obtaining a doctorate in zoology at the University of Cambridge (Great Britain), at the age of 42. In January 1970, his portrait, photographed by Bob Campbell, appeared on the cover of National Geographic. Dian Fossey becomes world famous. She is one of the figures in the study of the behavior and psychology of apes.

The scientist uses her notoriety to deconstruct stereotypes. Gorillas are not the monsters portrayed in books and in movies. Eric Baratay, animal historian, analyzes the impact of what she has been able to introduce: “This image reversal is important because it will allow wild animals to be reconsidered as important beings, for which we cannot do without. 'no matter what. Dian Fossey and others insist on letting animals live as they are because they have a sociability, they have an intelligence, they have a culture. " 

Gorillas in the Mist, his autobiographical story, tells of his thirteen years of living with primates. It is a worldwide bestseller. The book is the subject of a film adaptation, with Sigourney Weaver in the title role. Dian warns there about the importance of preserving gorillas, on the verge of extinction at the time.

The spellcaster against poachers

The primatologist then made the fight against poachers her priority, they who resell the hands and heads of gorillas and capture their babies for individuals. She hires a patrol to destroy the traps, intimidate and humiliate the hunters. She plays on their fear of black magic, by casting spells on them. After finding the mutilated body of Digit, his favorite gorilla, Dian Fossey steps up his actions and burns down houses. She writes: “I felt like part of me had been cut off”.

Poachers prevented from hunting, gold traffickers that she threatens to denounce, scientists wanting to profit from her research, Rwandan officials pro-tourism… In the course of her battles, she made many enemies. Dian Fossey was assassinated in 1985 at the age of 53. Despite the various leads, his murder remains unsolved. She is buried next to Digit, in the gorilla cemetery in Rwanda. 

The closing lines of his journal are: "When you realize the value of all life, dwell less on what is past and focus more on preserving the future."

In 1967, Dian Fossey moved to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to begin his research on mountain gorillas. The conflict forces her to move to the border with Rwanda, where she will spend 18 years studying gorillas, fighting poachers and transforming methods of saving.

Photograph by Robert IM Campbell, National Geographic Creative


Pucker Puss and Coco were torn from their family to be sold to the Cologne Zoological Park. In very poor health, they are first brought to the scientist for treatment. Once recovered, they are transferred to the zoo, despite Dian Fossey's objections.

Photograph by Robert IM Campbell, National Geographic Creative


The gorilla habitat was riddled with poachers and locals who populated the park for illegal purposes. Dian Fossey made a point of fighting them. These breeders undoubtedly let their cows graze inside the park.

Photograph by Alan Root, National Geographic Creative


Dian Fossey's active and hands-on approach to protection transformed the way these endangered primates were viewed and treated.

Photograph by Robert IM Campbell, National Geographic Creative

Each gorilla family was assigned a number as part of the research. Above, Diane Fossey observes Rafiki, the silverback gorilla in Group Eight.

Photograph by Robert IM Campbell, National Geographic Creative


By the time Dian Fossey began to study gorillas, the collective perception of these animals as violent and wild was widespread. Her goal was to change that image and she did it through the media, including National Geographic.

Photograph by Robert IM Campbell, National Geographic Creative

The scientist plays with Pucker Puss and Coco. 20 adult gorillas from their families were slaughtered to capture the two young.

Photograph by Robert IM Campbell, National Geographic Creative


After imitating the behaviors and habits of gorillas, including the way they eat and groom themselves, Dian Fossey was widely accepted by the gorillas she studied. "The reactions of the gorillas were favorable, although its dignity should be put aside for these kinds of methods," she wrote in National Geographic.

Photograph by Peter G. Veit, National Geographic Creative

Dian Fossey takes notes as a gorilla named Peanuts approaches her through the jungle.

Photograph by Robert IM Campbell, National Geographic Creative


Researchers in Karisoke, the field research center she had established within Volcanoes National Park, saw Dian Fossey as a surly host.

Photograph by Robert IM Campbell, National Geographic Creative


The door to the scientist's house opened onto the jungle of the Volcanoes National Park, located in Rwanda, then one of the poorest countries in Africa.

Photograph by Alan Root, National Geographic Creative


Dian Fossey kept many gorilla bones and skulls for his research and sent several to the Smithsonian Institution, an American scientific research institution. Although she had not received any academic training when she began her research, she subsequently obtained a doctorate from Cambridge University.

Photograph by Robert IM Campbell, National Geographic Creative


Dian Fossey's life was punctuated by loneliness, in the heart of the forest, until her death in 1985. According to her portrait in Vanity Fair, she was known by the nickname Nyiramacibili in Rwanda, "the woman. who lives alone in the depths of the woods ”.

Photograph by Robert IM Campbell, National Geographic Creative


Dian Fossey's first-person account of his life among mountain gorillas made headlines in National Geographic's January 1970 issue.

Photograph by Robert IM Campbell, National Geographic Creative

National Geographic records show how much Dian Fossey cared about defending misunderstood primates.

Before gaining international notoriety for his commitment to mountain gorillas, Dian Fossey fought to warn of the decrease in their population.

Aware that the gorillas were on the verge of extinction, she took a bold approach to communication and preservation that offended many, leading likely to her assassination in 1985, to this day not yet resolved. This relentless dedication, however, has helped to restore the image of endangered primates. Today, thousands of tourists visit Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo to be able to admire them.

In 1969, the then 35-year-old scientist received three grants from the National Geographic Society to conduct research on these stealthy mammals. The magazine's editorial staff then decided to report on their findings and quickly realized that the scientist was not afraid of breaking the law to protect gorillas.

On June 1, 1969, a letter written by Dian Fossey reached National Geographic headquarters in Washington, adding to the hundreds of pages of correspondence and observational writings that populate a shelf in the National Geographic Society archives. . This letter is addressed to W. Allan Royce, an illustrator who sent a draft of his illustrations for the article, and is scathing.

She writes: "My first reactions to this moron were to salute the 'Not for publication' that adorns the slides of both sketches and to underline the word 'draft' on the first page." .

The way gorillas were portrayed made her sick, she wrote in another letter to an editor. "Please do not denigrate this animal". The illustrations, which have since been lost, are said to have depicted a gorilla attacking the scientist, along with a caption calling them "savages." This incident only happened once in more than two thousand hours of observation spent with them, she said.

“The purpose of the sketch was to show that beyond the behavior of gorillas, your work is not without danger for your life,” reassures her W. Allan Royce.

Problems with the January 1970 issue of National Geographic, which ended up with Dian Fossey on the cover, were just beginning. Two months after the first controversy over the images, a writer by the name of RL Conly read Dian Fossey's account and wrote a scathing review: “The author shares a rambling tale of rather strange adventures in through the Virunga mountains, ”he wrote. “His house is on fire. She kidnaps a native child. The little one's father steals his dog. She holds the cattle of another local inhabitant as a ransom (so that her dog can be returned to her). She wears a Halloween mask in order to frighten the indigenous populations, since they disturb her gorillas. "

Dian Fossey's scientific observations were not in her accounts and the editor feared she might be compared negatively to Jane Goodall and her famous articles on chimpanzee research in Gombe, Tanzania. The scientist therefore exchanged her tales of ad hoc adventures for research and observations. As for the department dedicated to the illustrations of National Geographic, it had the word "wild" erased from the pages of the model.

At the time when the scientist set up her research center in Karisoke, in the heart of what is now Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park, decades of poaching left serious consequences. She feared that gorillas would become extinct over the next 30 years if nothing was done to protect them and took on the responsibility of being a protector, spokesperson and detective at the same time. During their daily patrols in the park, she and her research team collected hundreds of barbed wire traps left by poachers in order to trap gorillas and sell body parts and their young.

The scientist cared less about humans. Her treatment of Rwandans was often offensive. In her letters, she sometimes referred to her research team members and park staff as "my Africans". Her logbook and letters transcribe the anger she felt against the poorly trained and often corrupt staff. In a letter to a National Geographic researcher, she wrote: "The term 'Parks Service' is a bit flowery and laudatory to describe the services of six ragged, chronic alcoholics struggling to do office. of guards in the region ”. The government sometimes did not pay the rangers for several months. They therefore accepted bribes from poachers in exchange for access to the park, or even sold them their weapons.

In 1968, while Dian Fossey set up his research center, the president of the International Commission of National Parks visited the habitat of gorillas and wrote a very bad report. Albert National Park (a colonial name attributed to the entire range) was created in 1925 to “protect the gorillas”. However, his mission had failed. The report describes hunting parties organized as sporting activities, a looted ranger post and a cruel lack of equipment: “Tents, emergency seat belts, calf sleeves, shoes, backpacks, caps and badges were exhausted ”.

In the absence of effective rangers, Dian Fossey led the investigation herself. She notices that the cartridges were carefully removed from the gorilla murder scenes, preventing the murder weapon from being traced. "Then emerges the possibility that the weapon used in the murder is a known weapon, perhaps 'borrowed' from the park rangers?" She writes.

During a discussion in 1978 with the park manager, it was explained to him that the latter did not have the power to push poaching camps outside the park's borders or to shoot them inside the park. . In response, she proposed that he and his deputies be fired.

Frustration does not, however, have a predominant place in his logbooks. Its daily reports are enriched with key research. A 1971 memo titled “The Mirror Episode” describes his favorite gorilla, a young male named Digit, gazing at himself in a mirror: “He started to nod his head back and forth at the manner of a teenager preparing for the ball ”. Six years later, when Digit was murdered by poachers, he became the mascot of Dian Fossey's global gorilla protection awareness campaign. She founded the Digit Fund, now the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, which continues the conservation efforts initiated by the scientist.

In 1980, visits by tourists who came to observe gorillas increased by 130%. There are then four specialist gorilla guides who work from a new base and are equipped with new uniforms and radios. "For the first time, the revenues of the Volcanoes National Park exceed the expenses related to the management of the park," says a report.

Two years later, Dian Fossey describes a poacher caught red-handed while attempting to smuggle a one-month-old gorilla out of the park. For the first time, a ranger shoots and kills one of them. The type of active protection for which the scientist was campaigning is finally emerging.

In 1986, a year after Dian Fossey's assassination, 280 mountain gorillas populated the range that stretched between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They number 880 today and their population continues to increase. All three parks still employ aggressive protection methods. While Rwanda was one of the poorest countries in Africa at the time the scientist worked there, it has since become one of the continent's most striking economic success stories. Gorillas continue to be protected, and the country expects $ 444 million in tourism income in return this year.

Rwanda from "Gorillas in the Mist"

In the north of Rwanda, the peaks of the Virunga range rise up in the middle of the tropical jungle. Here live the last representatives of the mountain gorillas. In the 60s, the primatologist, Dian Fossey decided to live in contact with them in these forests suffused with light. The American draws from this immersion a work  adapted to the cinema, "Gorillas in the mist".

Dian Fossey's grave next to grave figures grave, mountain gorilla Karisoke yard,
Dian Fossey was buried near the cabin where she lived so many years of struggle and joy, in a field where murdered gorillas, including Digit, lie.


The assassination of Dian Fossey was the proof of the hatred carried to the women who do not accept the rules of the male, who install the disorder in the patriarchal order. Preventing fraudulent gains, warding off the anarchic occupation of land, intervening against the slaughter of cash, apparently deserves the death penalty, especially for a woman. Dian disturbed too much: there were too many interests at stake, too much money to be made, with the slaughter of animals.

She was hit in the head and face with a machete. His cabin was a mess, but nothing had been stolen, documents or money.

The person responsible for the murder of the gorilla friend imprisoned

July 28, 2001

IT HIDDEN among African refugees gathered in a reception center at Brussels airport: Protais Zigiranyirazo, a Rwandan suspected of having ordered the murder of the famous American primatologist Diane Fossey, assassinated on December 26, 1985, was arrested yesterday and placed under warrant of committal. He arrived in Brussels a month ago with a false passport. Wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal (ICT) of Arusha (Tanzania), which judges the organizers of the Rwandan genocide, this relative had managed to escape police checks until yesterday. But a denunciation, which reached the examining magistrate Damien Vandermeersch, led to his imprisonment in Forest prison in Brussels. He will be questioned there by agents of the FBI (the American federal police), who have been investigating for fifteen years the death of the scientist whose character, played by Sigourney Weaver, was magnified on the screen in the film "Gorillas in the Sea. haze ”.

He would have participated in the Rwandan genocide

Fifteen years after her death, the murder of Diane Fossey remains a mystery. The friend of the "great apes" of the Volcanoes National Park had established her research camp, Karisoke, in 1967, on the Congolese border. The images of his astonishing studies of gorillas have remained famous. In 1970, she established the first friendly contact ever recorded with a mountain gorilla: Peanuts, a three hundred kilogram male, brushes her hand. A few years later, Diane Fossey rose to fame when she denounced in the columns of "National Geographic" the murder of one of her proteges, the gorilla Digit, massacred by poachers eager for skins, meat, but above all for trophies. Diane Fossey's stroke of anger propels her to the pinnacle of the fight for the protection of endangered wildlife. On December 26, 1985, his body, fatally struck by six blows from a machete, was found near his camp. Very quickly, suspicions are directed towards Protais Zigiranyirazo, the prefect of Ruhengeri, who is suspected of being the organizer of trafficking in gold, diamonds and gorilla remains. Witnesses have named him as the sponsor of the assassination of Diane Fossey, who had made the mistake of drawing the world's attention to this region of northern Rwanda, delivered to ecological looting. History caught up with the prefect of Ruhengeri: it was for his alleged participation in the 1994 genocide that he was arrested.


Women of adventure do not all die, as long as they do not disturb the patriarchal powers too much. Feminicide is the punishment of women and feminists who rise up against patriarchy in all walks of life.

Dian Fossey, woman of adventure, of character, of opinion, of struggle, her heritage remains in the forest of mountain gorillas, in the mist and the cold, where they frolic and live their life in freedom.

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