Fossey Is Murdered over Efforts to Protect Mountain Gorillas Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Dian Fossey, an eminent primatologist who spent nearly twenty years studying the behavior and habitat of the endangered mountain gorillas of Rwanda, was brutally murdered in her mountain cabin, apparently because of her efforts to protect the gorillas from poachers.

Summary of Event

At 5:45 a.m. on the morning of December 27, 1985, Wayne McGuire, a student researcher working under Dian Fossey’s direction on the Rwandan mountain gorilla project, was awakened by the houseman, Kenyaragana, who was yelling, “Dian kufu, kufu.” Kufu was one of the few Swahili words McGuire knew—it means “dead.” McGuire rushed to Fossey’s cabin and found Fossey dead there, the place ransacked and plundered, with shattered glass strewn on the floor and drawers pulled out. Philippe Bertrand, a French surgeon from the Ruhengeri hospital who examined Fossey’s body, determined that the cause of death was a crushing blow to the head. Inspection of the cabin suggested that the murderer had entered the cabin through a hole in the tin wall of the bedroom and that the murder weapon was a blood-stained machete found under the bed. Mountain gorillas Murders;Dian Fossey[Fossey] Poaching;gorillas [kw]Fossey Is Murdered over Efforts to Protect Mountain Gorillas (Dec. 27, 1985) [kw]Murdered over Efforts to Protect Mountain Gorillas, Fossey Is (Dec. 27, 1985) [kw]Mountain Gorillas, Fossey Is Murdered over Efforts to Protect (Dec. 27, 1985) [kw]Gorillas, Fossey Is Murdered over Efforts to Protect Mountain (Dec. 27, 1985) Gorillas Mountain gorillas Murders;Dian Fossey[Fossey] Poaching;gorillas [g]Africa;Dec. 27, 1985: Fossey Is Murdered over Efforts to Protect Mountain Gorillas[05910] [g]Rwanda;Dec. 27, 1985: Fossey Is Murdered over Efforts to Protect Mountain Gorillas[05910] [c]Crime and scandal;Dec. 27, 1985: Fossey Is Murdered over Efforts to Protect Mountain Gorillas[05910] [c]Animals and endangered species;Dec. 27, 1985: Fossey Is Murdered over Efforts to Protect Mountain Gorillas[05910] Fossey, Dian Leakey, L. S. B. Root, Alan Root, Joan Schaller, George Campbell, Robert

In 1954, Walter Baumgartel, Baumgartel, Walter an adventurer looking for new opportunities, had traveled to the volcanic terrain of the Congo to look at an inn that he was considering taking over as a business. He was also driven by curiosity about the continent of Africa, its inhabitants, and, most of all, its rare and least-known treasure, the giant mountain gorilla of the Virungas. In Muhavura, Baumgartel for the first time caught sight of the greatest of the great apes, an entire gorilla family consisting of two large animals and an infant. The brief but tender scene he witnessed impressed him deeply, and he decided not only that these magnificent animals could be used in advertising his tourist business but also that they needed protection from human encroachment. To find out more about the animals, Baumgartel in 1956 contacted the internationally acclaimed zoologist, anatomist, and paleontologist L. S. B. Leakey.

Leakey had been born in Kenya to British missionaries and had grown up in Africa; he always considered himself an African, and Kikuyu was his first and best language. After studying at the University of Cambridge, he went on to become a widely respected prehistorian, specializing in evolutionary science. Despite reservations about Baumgartel’s motives, Leakey responded positively, for he had long-range plans for comprehensive studies of the three great ape species, the chimpanzee, the orangutan, and the gorilla. He initiated the gorilla studies when he asked Rosalie Osborn, Osborn, Rosalie a young woman from Scotland, and the South African journalist Jill Donisthorpe Donisthorpe, Jill to start the project. They were succeeded by University of Wisconsin ornithologist John Emlen Emlen, John and his graduate student, George Schaller, who surveyed about fifteen thousand square miles of the region.

Dian Fossey socializes with young mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains in 1982. Her efforts to protect the gorillas from poachers led to her murder three years later.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

On the basis of these researchers’ observations—Schaller, who often slept among the gorillas, accumulated an astonishing 466 hours of direct observation in less than one year—it was estimated that the area contained approximately four hundred mountain gorillas, a far lower figure than that for the smaller lowland gorillas. Dian Fossey’s work with the mountain gorillas, Jane Goodall’s Goodall, Jane study of the chimpanzees of Tanzania, and Birute Galdikas’s Galdikas, Birute work with the orangutans of Indonesia eventually rounded out Leakey’s plan.

Fossey, who had been working in Louisville, Kentucky, made her first trip to Africa in 1960, wanting to see the mountain gorillas of Mount Mikeno in the Congo and to meet Leakey and his wife, Mary. The Leakeys told her about Goodall’s fieldwork with chimpanzees at the Gombe Stream Research Center in Tanzania and stressed the importance of long-range field studies of the great apes. Fossey later wrote in her book Gorillas in the Mist that it was then that “the seed was planted in my head . . . that I would someday return to Africa to study the gorillas of the mountains.”

Accompanied by a former game warden named John Alexander, Alexander, John who served as her guide, Fossey found her way to Baumgartel’s Traveller’s Rest Inn in Kisoro. At Kabara Meadow in the Congo wilderness, she met the famous husband-and-wife team of wildlife photographers Alan and Joan Root. It was in their presence that Fossey first came face-to-face with a mountain gorilla, an experience she would never forget. In 1966, she showed Leakey, then visiting the University of Louisville, photographs of that sighting (she never acknowledged that the photos had been taken by the Roots), whereupon Leakey arranged for a small grant for her from the wealthy American patron Leighton Wilkie, Wilkie, Leighton which enabled Fossey to return to Africa on December 16, 1966.

From 1967 until her violent death in 1985, Fossey lived among the gorillas. Through her dedication and the quality of her field observations—in one year she exceeded Schaller’s field observation record—she established a sound reputation in her field. Loneliness sometimes drove her to mistrust those who came to work with her, including other naturalists and students. The Roots, however, became her good friends and worked with her on a project for National Geographic magazine. In September, 1968, the photographer Robert Campbell arrived at Karisoke on assignment from National Geographic. He eventually replaced Alan Root as the photographer on the project, and between 1969 and 1972, Fossey and Campbell spent long periods of time together.

By that time, Fossey had become well acquainted with individual groups of gorillas. Fossey’s first National Geographic article included Campbell’s photographs of Peanuts, a young blackback gorilla who had moved tentatively toward Fossey and touched her fingers, a rare gesture from the shy animals. Fossey became particularly close to a young gorilla from another group whom she named Digit (because he had a deformed finger); she watched Digit grow from a shy, young creature to a mature adult. Digit was unusual not only in that he came close enough to touch Fossey but also in that he actually played with her notebook, pencil, and glove. A 1973 National Geographic television special titled The Search for the Great Apes, on which Fossey and Campbell collaborated, made Digit known throughout the world.

By 1970, Fossey’s funds were dwindling, and she had health problems stemming from two abortions and neglected teeth. Her greatest worry, however, was the poaching of gorillas. During her time in Africa, Fossey had witnessed alarming rates of population decimation among the few hundred remaining gorillas. Fossey’s realization that, without protection, the species would be extinct before the end of the century contributed to her almost pathological hatred of poachers. She began to work for the legal protection of the animals inside park boundaries, and she herself repeatedly engaged in disputes with poachers.

As the tensions increased between Fossey and the local inhabitants, the level of violence also rose. On one occasion when Fossey was in Cambridge fulfilling her Ph.D. residency requirements, poachers killed six gorillas in the village of Cundura; the slaughter was an act of revenge after one of Fossey’s associates, Alan Goodall, Goodall, Alan had shot a poacher in the back. The incident, which became an international issue, almost brought Fossey’s gorilla project to an end, but Campbell was able to persuade National Geographic to keep funding the work.

Fossey was devastated when, on December 31, 1977, Digit was killed while defending his group against six poachers and their dogs. The news was reported worldwide, and the Digit Fund Digit Fund was established for the protection of the gorillas. The violence, however, continued. On July 24, 1978, the body of the patriarch of that group, named Uncle Bert, was found with the head chopped off, and that same day a female named Macho was brutally murdered. It became clear that Fossey’s favorite group was the target of the attacks.

In 1979, Fossey accepted a position as visiting professor at Cornell University. Gorillas in the Mist, Gorillas in the Mist (Fossey) which became a huge popular success, was published four years later. Soon thereafter, Fossey returned to Karisoke and resumed her efforts to stop the poaching. She reported in early 1984 that 584 poachers’ traps had been cut and sixty-four poachers had been spotted. Less than two years later, she was dead.


Fossey was buried behind her camp in Karisoke among her beloved gorillas. Engraved on her tombstone was her African nickname, Nyirmachabelli, which means “the woman who lives alone on the mountain.” McGuire, Wayne Bertrand, Philippe Gorillas

Fossey’s fate was similar to that of Joy Adamson, the naturalist who wrote the 1960 best seller Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds and who was found murdered in the bush of Kenya. Both women paid a gruesome price for their efforts to make the world aware of the habitats and characteristics of magnificent, misunderstood animals. Fossey had undertaken her project against great odds; her difficulties were compounded by her irascible and volatile temperament, which often alienated the very people with whom she needed to collaborate.

On the basis of the work of Schaller, the Roots, and Fossey, however, a valuable store of information was collected about the mountain gorillas. It was established that they are shy, gentle creatures who have extremely close family ties. They eat about twenty-nine varieties of food plants and drink little or no water. Socially, they organize themselves into groups or communities of sizes varying from two to thirty, each group centered on a sexually mature male whose coat has turned gray across his massive back. Such a male, called a silverback, can weigh as much as four hundred pounds and is almost twice as large as an adult female. The several phases of a muscular and powerful silverback’s charge include hooting, beating the chest, an explosive roar, and a sideways attack with open jaws.

Fossey took up her committed fight against the practice of poaching soon after she began to study the gorillas, but her effectiveness in opposing local practices was hampered by her ignorance of the political history of the Congo, which included years of brutal Belgian rule. During one phase of repression of white foreigners, Fossey had been detained, confined in a cage, tortured, and raped repeatedly. After escaping, she managed, with Leakey’s help, to return to the Rwandan side of the Virungas.

On a personal level, Fossey’s life became more difficult after Campbell left Karisoke in 1973. According to reports, she drank more heavily and became more demanding, impatient, and suspicious with her colleagues, especially with the Africans and her students. Many colleagues, workers, and students found it impossible to work with her, but Cambridge graduates Alexander Harcourt Harcourt, Alexander and Graeme Groom Groom, Graeme and Stanford graduate Kelly Stewart Stewart, Kelly spent considerable amounts of time at Karisoke.

After Digit’s murder, Harcourt in 1978 devised a long-term conservation plan to save the gorillas; he based his approach on collaboration between primatologists and tourists. His project, which was underwritten by the British Fauna and Flora Preservation Society, became very successful. Fossey, who wanted the gorillas to be protected even from benign interference, did not approve of the plan and advocated instead that armed patrols be installed to protect the area. Her relationships with Harcourt and the Rwandan officials deteriorated, a situation that in part led to her return to the United States.

The nearly twenty years of her life that Fossey devoted to studying, cataloging, and protecting the rare mountain gorillas of Rwanda resulted in an invaluable store of information on the animals and the region. Despite her sometimes difficult personal and professional life and her violent death, her work caught the public imagination and helped to bring the gorillas’ plight to worldwide attention. Gorillas Mountain gorillas Murders;Dian Fossey[Fossey] Poaching;gorillas

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baumgartel, Walter. Up Among the Mountain Gorillas. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1976. One of the first books to draw attention to the existence and lure of the mountain gorillas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De la Bédoyère, Camilla. No One Loved Gorillas More: Dian Fossey—Letters from the Mist. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2005. Combines biographical material with Fossey’s own letters and many photographs by Robert Campbell to show the extent of Fossey’s devotion to the mountain gorillas. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fossey, Dian. Gorillas in the Mist. 1983. Reprint. New York: Mariner Books, 2000. Fossey’s own popular account of her life and work served as the source material for the successful film of the same title.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hayes, Harold T. P. The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey. New York: Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, 1990. Excellent biography describes all sides of Fossey’s life and personality. Includes photographs, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schaller, George. Gorillas: Struggle for Survival in the Virungas. New York: Aperture Foundation, 1989. An incisive account of the mountain gorillas’ plight.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weber, Bill, and Amy Vedder. In the Kingdom of Gorillas: Fragile Species in a Dangerous Land. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. Detailed account of field research by a husband-and-wife team who knew Fossey. Provides an update on the Rwanda mountain gorillas and discussion of Fossey and her work. Includes photographs and index.

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