26th December 1985 the Martyrdom of Dian Fossey

The extraordinary Dian Fossey

On this night in 1985, Dian Fossey – legendary zoologist and champion of Africa’s mountain gorillas – was brutally murdered in the bedroom of her isolated cabin, high in Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Her lifeless body with its skull split open was discovered the following morning: evidence of violent struggle then murder by machete. What had prompted this despicable act, perpetrated against so famous an animal lover? The Western world was shocked, outraged by the murder. For, through her efforts to publicise the plight of the gorillas in National Geographic magazine articles and her bestselling book (and future Hollywood blockbuster) Gorillas in the Mist, Dian Fossey had become a famous heroine. In America, her work with the gorillas had become so celebrated that the illustrious newsreader Walter Cronkite had even reported the murder of Fossey’s favourite gorilla, Digit, as the leading story on CBS Nightly News. And yet Dian Fossey had died in that same brutal manner as the gorillas she had come to save. Bemused outsiders and observers from the foreign media wondered how had it come to this?

Those who knew and worked with Dian Fossey, however, were far less surprised by the tragedy. For they all understood that her unknown murderer could have been one of a multitude of enemies that Fossey had amassed throughout her single-minded, even fanatical one-woman mission to save her beloved mountain gorillas from the brink of extinction. When she had first arrived in 1966, Fossey had discovered less than 100 gorillas living on the mountains – their fragile colony threatened on all sides by zoo collectors, poachers, herdsmen, scientists and corrupt law enforcers. However, with a superhuman determination and struggling against the forces of torrential rains, witchcraft, political revolution and gorilla poachers, Fossey had single-handedly – by the time of her tragic murder – increased the gorillas’ numbers to 150. But it was the belligerent manner in which Fossey had defended her gorillas, however, which had caused so many silent vendettas against her. For Fossey’s attachment to these great and gentle Higher Primates had quickly become so obsessive that the war she waged on their behalf was often criticized for its lack of diplomacy, as she high-mindedly ignored Rwandan funding laws and the opinions of its local politicians. When local herdsmen exerted their age-old rights to graze cattle on “her” mountain, Fossey simply shot their cattle. But her greatest battle was with the poachers, who – by selling a gorilla skeleton to a university and its hands to tourists – could earn up to $200,000 for one single victim. At first, Fossey was content to destroy the poachers’ traps. But after Digit died during a particularly traumatic spate of gorilla murders, Fossey stepped up her fight by terrorising the poachers in their own villages.  Dian Fossey’s rabid determination to protect that which she loved had turned this brilliant and committed scientist into a stubborn and formidable Warrior – an obvious target.

Dian Fossey was born in California in 1932, and would later recall: “I had this urge, this need to go to Africa from the day I was born.” She fulfilled her destiny under the auspices of famed anthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey, spending eighteen years of groundbreaking research in the most challenging conditions 10,000 feet above sea level in the remote volcanic mountains in east Africa shared by Zaire, Rwanda and Uganda. And although her scientific research would become eclipsed by her conservation efforts, it is always to be remembered that Dian Fossey was – first and foremost – the world’s premier authority on the mountain gorilla. And after years of patient work which famously involved mimicking the habits and submissive behaviour of her fifty-one subjects, Fossey claimed her first major breakthrough in 1970 when one of the gorillas whom she had named Peanuts touched her hand: this was to be the first friendly contact ever recorded between humans and gorillas. A particularly poignant example of her extraordinary success and the trust she painstakingly established occurred when a young gorilla named Coco, orphaned by poachers, climbed on her cabin bench, looked out the window to the forest and began to sob.

However, due to the efforts of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International – the non-profit conservation charity which Fossey established in 1978 – there are today some 320 mountain gorillas living in the Virungas: precisely half the world’s population of these extraordinary animals. Fossey had witnessed the violent murders of dozens of gorillas at the hands of poachers. But since her death, there have been only two known killings. Fossey was buried in the graveyard that she established for the murdered gorillas, where she lies alongside her beloved Digit and more than a dozen others. And in 1990, the Rwandan Government, who had for years ignored Fossey’s pleas to protect their mountain gorillas, finally recognized her enormous scientific achievement with their posthunmous presentation to Fossey of their prestigious Ordre National des Grandes Lacs – the highest award ever given to a foreigner. Verily, Dian Fossey’s relentless struggle did not merely bring the plight of an endangered species to the attention of the world; she died a martyr for their cause.

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15 Responses to 26th December 1985 – the Martyrdom of Dian Fossey

  1. Joseph K says:

    Thanks for remembering Dian. I know it’s only a quick Google away, but …….

  2. The fact that any gorilla deaths are now reported as ‘murders’ is a testament to her vital work in changing our attitude to our remarkable, hairy, mountain-dwelling cousins.

  3. Issa says:

    She was such a heroine. A sterling example of the sacrfices and dedication required in order to succeed in a achieving the impossible. People have even accused her of being racists. Of course she was racist. She had a problem with the HUMAN RACE and the way they as the masters of the earth betrayed their position and mistreated these beautiful gorillas.

  4. Michael says:

    “The man who kills the animals today is the man who kills the people who get in his way tomorrow.” Dian Fossey

    How true – and how prescient given the atrocities that would take place in Rwanda only a few years later.

    Thank you Dorian. A fantastic tribute to one of the true outsiders.

  5. Sanderton says:

    Just so you know, I linked this page to my Facebook but it stopped working.

  6. Phillip H. Hay says:

    She showed how one motivated person can help save a sick planet. Are not all of us” in the Right Place at the Right Time”?

  7. Sami says:

    Dian Fossey was a great person and loved gorillas she was the best

  8. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXJ07w3i6L0

    – You present a staggering account of the relation between Love & Conviction & the Power it generates.
    – Dian Fossey had obviously Fallen completely in Love w/ the gorillas.

    …It is striking how her story is – specifically
    – an example of Conservation, Compassion, Courage, Scholarship – &tc.
    – vs. Expediency, Greed, Narrow-mindedness…

    …We can say in these situations that many Africans are merely trying to subsist – & there is more than one ‘right’ point of view.
    – This is just passing the buck where the Game of Values is concerned:
    …If we truly believed in & existed in a Free Market in this world
    ( – rather than a Market Society – in which only monetary value defines everything)
    – then the considerable percentages of the populations n the African continent
    ( – which is, after all, no less than the Place of All Origins – !)
    – living in poverty & desperation – would have their options…

    – We Homo sapiens are not alone on this planet – !
    – Even though we’re in a unique position in our effects on it…

    …The difference is people like Dian Fossey try to understand these other species of animal ( – for we are one of these ourselves!)
    – on their own terms – !
    ( – How many people do these even w/ their own cats or dogs – ??: We so often fail to consider even that they are tiny compared to us & basically territorial, for example.)

    …It’s worth pausing to reflect how much research like hers has changed society’s images & impressions of these creatures
    – & continues to do so – !

    Koko: A Talking Gorilla [1/8] – YouTube

    Sep 8, 2009 – 10 min – Uploaded by tehinfidel
    A documentary about Koko the talking gorilla from 1978. Shows Koko working with Dr …

    – Consider – ! :
    – We can SPEAK w/ our fellow higher primates – chimps & gorillas
    – & they HAVE THINGS to SAY – !
    …Is it just me – or is this HUGE – ?!?

  9. Brian High says:

    Dian Fossey — you were unique, you were a gift to this world. Your Work and Love must carry on. GOD BLESS YOU.

  10. What an amzing woman she was murdered by spineless cowards in the night. She and her work will never be forgotten

  11. Charlee says:

    I believe that Dian Fossey proved, thru her contact and socialization with these amazing creatures that they do have a degree… no matter how “much less” than humans… of self-awareness. I know that this is science heresy to say, but it’s MY belief. Coco cried at that window. I heard that stroy many years ago. And the fact that these beautiful and gentle creatures adopted Dian into their family shows just how generous in spirit they are. THEY took the big chance. Not Dian. She gambled with her life, her safety. THEY gambled their very existence. But they saw something in Dian that we have failed to see in THEM. And that is the potential for what might be. Think on this; and then tell me who is the possessor of true humanity. It would be a true sin against the very face of God to destroy any of these wonderful beings. The human race must change it’s collective outlook on other species. And while it’s still not too late to do so.

  12. FireFly says:

    This was really well written, I’m glad I stumble across it. I idolize this woman and wish I were half as strong and brave. I know I’ve put her on a pedestal, she was far from perfect, haha, but still so damn admirable.

  13. Juliet says:

    A beautiful post, discovered yesterday as I searched for more about Dian Fossey. Wall St. Journal smear to the contrary, I can understand how she got into the headspace she did about the intentions of her fellow “human” beings. She was brave, dedicated, and willing to stand in the last ditch and fight for the gorillas, who are, after all, as much “God’s Children” as we are.

    • Barbara says:

      There is a beautiful poem that was written several years ago about Dian Fossey. Its author is Paulette Callan. I think it’s worth a read.

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