Dian Fossey is an American zoologist who is famous for her work with gorillas in Rwanda. Her career was unfortunately cut short when she was murdered in 1985, in circumstances which have yet to be resolved. Several foundations and organizations carry on the memory of Dian Fossey in their conservation work, including The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. She is considered one of “Leakey's Angels,” a group of noted women researchers who worked in Africa with great apes.
She was born in 1932 in San Francisco, and from an early age, she had an interest in zoology and veterinary science. She struggled with the coursework, however, ultimately becoming an occupational therapist in the 1960s. However, Fossey was never really happy for this work, and she began to be drawn to Africa and the work of Louis Leakey, a paleontologist who made a number of notable discoveries. In the 1960s, she went to Leakey with the intent of getting a job working with gorillas, and by 1967, she was working in the Democratic Republic of Congo, later moving to Rwanda in response to civil unrest.
Fossey studied the techniques of Jane Goodall, a noted chimpanzee researcher and fellow Angel. Dian Fossey wanted to explore the natural lifestyle of gorillas, but to do so, she had to get the animals accustomed to her. She modeled her fieldwork style on Goodall's, establishing a connection with the gorillas so that they felt comfortable around her. She also broke down many misconceptions about gorillas, showing that they could be loving and gentle, and that instances of gorilla violence were probably linked to self-defense, not an inherently violent nature.
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As a conservationist, Dian Fossey was controversial. She was an active opponent of keeping gorillas in zoos and research facilities, and she pushed for more protections of gorillas. Unlike many conservationists, Fossey refused to support or promote tourism, arguing that it harmed the animals more than it helped them. She also clashed repeatedly with poachers, and was the victim of violent threats.
On 26 December, 1985, Fossey was found dead in her cabin with a severe head wound. While some people suggested that she had been killed by poachers, others argued that poachers probably would have murdered her in the forest, rather than in her camp, and that she may have been killed because of her radical conservationist views. Whatever the circumstances of her death were, Dian Fossey was buried with her gorilla friends, in a graveyard she had established for the bodies of animals killed by poachers.