The Gorilla King
More on Dian Fossey and Her Research

Titus, the Gorilla King

It was from a small hut in Rwanda that researcher and conservationist Dian Fossey observed that while gorillas may sometimes act tough, they are really gentle giants.

Fossey is one of the most famous scientists in the world, but her path to greatness was a meandering one. While she had always been interested in animals, her bachelor’s degree was in occupational therapy. One year, after hearing stories and seeing pictures from a friend’s vacation in Africa, Fossey decided that she would visit there herself. In 1963, she gathered all of her savings and took out a three-year loan. She set a course for Africa, planning stops in Kenya, Tanzania, Congo, and Zimbabwe. She didn’t know it yet, but this trip would change her life forever.

At Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, one of the final stops on her journey, Fossey met archaeologist Louis Leakey. During the visit, Dr. Leakey told Fossey of Jane Goodall’s research with chimps, which at that point had just barely begun. They also discussed the importance of long-term research on the great apes. Fossey later said that this meeting planted the idea in her head that she would one day return to study the gorillas of Africa.

Early Research

Fossey began her long-term study of mountain gorillas in 1966, eventually establishing her “Karisoke” Research Center camp on Sept. 24, 1967, in an area between Mt. Visoke and Mt. Karisimbi, merging the names of the two volcanoes to create the name “Karisoke.”

She lived among the mountain gorillas for nearly 20 years keeping detailed journals to record everything she observed, and forging close relationships with individual gorillas as she gained their trust. She shared her thoughts and the results of her findings with the world, teaching us that gorillas are not monsters but social beings full of curiosity and affection. Her work paved the way for international support of mountain gorilla conservation and research, but her life was tragically cut short as a result of her efforts. She was found murdered in her cabin in Karisoke on December 26, 1985.

In 1988, the life and work of Fossey were portrayed in a movie based on her book. In the film Gorillas in the Mist, Sigourney Weaver starred as Fossey and later became the honorary chairperson of what is now the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.

The film started a wave of curiosity about mountain gorillas and started a whole new industry of “gorilla tourism,” which has been a financial boon for conservation efforts, as well as a deterrent against poachers fearful of being discovered.

Fossey and Other Close Encounters

Dian Fossey with a gorilla    

Dian Fossey started a process of ‘habituation’ that enabled her to work closely with the gorillas.

Just last year, in the Bwindi National Park in Uganda, a group of eight tourists quietly observed a family of mountain gorillas just a few yards away. After fifty-five minutes, a large male approached one of the tourists and gave him a big “high-five.”

“The gorilla probably approached him because he had a lot of body hair,” said Chuck Nichols, who ran the two-week gorilla tour in Uganda. Nichols owns a tour company based in Moab, Utah that specializes in small-group adventure tours around the world.

“The gorillas are not scary,” Nichols said, explaining that, actually, he has to make sure the gorillas are not the ones running scared. “A tracker must accompany the group, and people are only allowed to observe the gorillas for one hour,” he said. He also makes sure the groups are healthy since he does not want to stand the chance of passing on infectious diseases to the animals.

Sadly, these peaceful animals may not survive into the next century. Ape conservationists say time is running out, as there are only about 720 mountain gorillas left in the world, and the majority of gorilla populations are plummeting.

From the beginning, Fossey focused attention on the gorillas’ plight and saw clearly that they were doomed unless people could learn how to share forest resources with these great apes. She understood that they needed our protection if they were to survive, and gave her life in the struggle to protect them from poachers.

Like Fossey, biologists are becoming activists by necessity and are putting their lives on the line to save these great apes. In fact, conservation professionals and many national park staff have lost their lives in the course of duty because until now, their efforts have been poorly enforced. Today, ape conservation organizations, like the Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP) have come together to partner with Fossey’s Gorilla Fund in a last-ditch effort to unify existing conservation efforts.

In the mountains east of the Congo River Basin, human-transmitted pathogens have taken a heavy toll, and the hope is that GRASP will succeed in protecting the gorillas. Gorillas are closely related to humans and susceptible to the same diseases that we are; however, they have not developed the immunities to resist human diseases, making them vulnerable to infections that could spread and severely deplete an entire population.

Habituated gorilla groups (those that are visited by tourists) have the greatest risk, which is why tourists are not permitted to go near the gorillas if they feel sick. But, according to Melanie Virtue, a team leader for GRASP, this is hard to enforce, especially due to the amount of money that is spent to view these animals.

“You can imagine that a tourist traveling a great distance to see these animals, of which they have probably dreamed their entire lives, is going to be quite hesitant to say, ‘No, I am not feeling well and don’t want to endanger them,’” Virtue explains.

Today, the Karisoke Research Center that Fossey established is conducting a Tourism Impact Study, using both behavioral and physiological data (urine and fecal samples) to assess the impact of tourism on the Virunga mountain gorilla population.

“Almost certainly the biggest factor in the conservation success with this species has been the income they generate from gorilla tourism, so if you can afford it, going to see these amazing animals in the wild really is helping to ensure their survival,” said David Jay, senior officer of Born Free, an ape conservation organization that works with GRASP.

The future of these great apes will certainly depend on tourists’ interest in seeing these apes first-hand and that people show continued concern for their safety, according to Jay.

Fossey had the courage to follow gorillas among the steep ravines of a 14,000-foot volcano over 40 years ago, and so made it possible for all of us to follow in her footsteps.

  • kassandra

    i love dian fossey shes my hreo i love her work and i want to read her diary to find out what happened!!!!1

  • i will never forget you dian

    Dian was an amazing human being and her life ended in tragedy. What I find the most troubling besides her murder and the murders of her Gorilla friends, is the fact that her dreams for the Gorillas have not been realized. There has been alot of tourism in Gorilla territory, which was against Dian’s wishes. I believe a compromise should be made. Any tourists wishing to visit the Virunga Mountains and the Gorillas, must be tested for diseases that are deadly to the animals, before they are allowed to see the amazing Gorillas. People should be glad to do anything they can to protect and accomodate this unique and beautiful species! and ALL THE OTHER SPECIES OF EARTHS. What is wrong with people?

  • rene hersey

    I quite agree. There are simple tests that the tour groups can initiate the night before climbing up to watch the Mountain Gorillas. It is selfish not to do so.
    Years ago the behaviorists were ridiculed for showing emotions toward their study groups. Now it is OK, but, we cannot wait to enforce our concerns for spreading disease. It’s simple, pay the money and put the Gorillas first, above our momentary needs.

  • lynn howell

    Although i think that the Karisoke project is miraculous, I also think Dian Fossey was an obsessed fool.Granted her obsession was to save these gorgeous giants of the jungles,I believe also that we reap what we sew. I have read her book and her diary and I’ve seen “Gorillas in the Mist” and I think when they say you can go crazy hanging out in the woods for to long,she’s a prime example.

  • susie

    Ever since i read about dian in the old National Geographic mags, i hav been considering about going into this field of work. i proudly admit that dian is one of the greatest women ever to walk the earth, in my opinion.

  • orgonite

    magnificent post, very informative. I’m wondering why the other specialists of this sector don’t understand this. You must proceed your writing. I’m sure, you’ve a great readers’ base already!

  • Gorilla’s Rule

    I think Gorilla’s are amazing and I can’t believe people would poach them. I am considering going into this field of work ever since I saw the Gorilla King and read about what Dian Fossey did.

  • Robina

    I went up the mountain or should I say the volcano from the Rwanda inside it was the rainy season and it was a difficult climb probably the most difficult time I had to the made in my life since I’m not a hiker. But the reward was something I will never forget in all my life. I actually held hands a baby gorilla and mother didn’t seem to mind.

  • Robina

    I went up the Rwandan side of the volcano and
    , it was in the rainy season and the mud was up to my knees, and I am not a hiker. But the reward when I got to the top and sat in the rain with the guerrillas was the reward of my life. Because a baby gorilla came to me and sat right beside me and put its hand in mine. it became fascinated with my hair which is red pulling it gently. There where tears running down my face, tears of joy.
    i I ask that each and every one of us look after these glorious animals so that we may in generations to come be able to have the same experience that I had.

  • angela

    hi im angela and i had to do a project on famouse sicintist and i chose dian and i got real into it and i would like to know about her murder and how it was unsolved do you think you could send me some pics of the crime seen and her pic of how she looked when they found her but i found out that she was 9,000 feet up on the montians so i was thinking maybe it was one of the animals she was doing reasch on but im not to shure so dont take it to haurt but i would really like to find out what happen so do you think you could help me out but if you dont want to send me the pic you dont have to but if you van that would be great i wont sho

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