In December 1966 Dian Fossey arrived in Africa to begin her long term study of the mountain gorilla, in a similar style to leading primatologist Jane Goodall. Upon arrival she spent time learning about Goodall’s research methods. Fossey’s first camp in the Virunga Mountains located on the slopes of Mt. Mikeno allowed her to study with three groups of mountain gorillas. She learned how to interact with the groups by imitating their behavior and kept detailed records of her observations.
Due to unrest in the area Fossey was forced to move her camp to the Rwandan side of the Virungas, against the advice of the American embassy. In 1967 she founded the Karisoke Research Center, the name a combination of the names of the two mountains at either end of the camp. At Karisoke, Dian came to depend on the gorillas’ natural curiosity in order to be able to interact and study the groups. Instead of walking upright she would “knuckle walk” and she would also chew on celery when she was near the groups, to draw them even closer to her. Through this process, she partially habituated four groups in 1968 and was able to study these groups for many years.
Fossey was a strong opponent to both poaching and wild-life tourism and fought both in the areas around the research center. Fossey took it upon herself to help protect the gorillas in the area from poachers, going so far as destroying poachers traps and patrolling the area in a way that she described as “active conservation”. She also felt that tourists interfered with the natural behavior of the gorillas as well as spreading diseases that the animals had no natural defense against.
Moving to Ithaca, New York in 1980 to teach at Cornell, Fossey also began writing her book Gorillas in the Mist which was published in 1983, and chronicles her life including her time spent with the mountain gorillas at the research center. Only a few weeks after returning to Rwanda in 1985, Fossey’s work and life were cut short, when she was murdered in her cabin at Karisoke. It is speculated that her murder was a result of her conservation and anti-poaching efforts. Her work is continued by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.
Written by Angela Goad