Dian Fossey and the mountain gorillas

The story of the world-famous primatologist, and her tragic battle against poaching.
11 April 2016

Interview with 

Georgia Mills, Naked Scientists


A photo of the gorilla Digit, from the PhD of Dian Fossey.


Many of the world's most charismatic endangered species are at risk from poaching,Digit and it is a complex problem to tackle. Dian Fossey devoted her life to researching mountain gorillas, but increasingly got drawn in to a fight against the poachers who kidnapped them. Her dramatic approach to conservation was seen by many as extreme, but was she doing the right thing? Naked Scientists Georgia Mills dug out Dian Fossey's Cambridge PhD manuscript, and took Connie Orbach through her tragic story...

Georgia - Here in the room where we have our tea every day is a massive bookshelf full of people's PhDs from the past and right up there at the top - I'm going to have to get up on a chair - is Dian Fossey's PhD called "The Behaviour of the Mountain Gorilla."

Connie - That is the voice of fellow Naked Scientist, Georgia, who's been investigating Dian's story....

Georgia - Looking through, it's full of photos and graphs that have been stuck in by hand.  So this is quite a fantastic artifact really to have where you have your tea each day. And this is from when Dian Fossey was in Cambridge doing her PhD on a very brief stint when she wasn't in Africa studying these gorillas.

Connie - Wow it's beautiful.  Yes, you can see that all of the pages have been individually typed.

Georgia - Dian Fossey is a really interesting character.  She just decided at the age of about 30 that she just really wanted to go to Africa, she took out a massive bank loan, and just up and left really.  And when she was there she met a world famous anthropologist, Louis Leakey, told him about her passion for gorillas and about three years later, he funded her to go out and study these mountain gorillas where they live.

Connie - Wow! Dream job.

Georgia - Absolutely, and I think from reading her biography "Gorillas in the Mist", it sounds absolutely magical.  She wrote this about the first time she ever saw them...

"I shall never forget my first encounter with gorillas.  Sound preceded sight, odour preceded sound in the form of an overwhelming musky barnyard, human-like scent.  The air was suddenly wrent by a high pitched series of screams followed by the rhythmic rumble of sharp 'pok-pok' chest beats from a great silver backed male obscured behind what seemed an impenetrable wall of vegetation."

Connie -   She's got quite a knack for description there.  So she was a researcher, but we're talking about conservation.  How did she move from one to the other?

Georgia - She spent so much time researching these gorillas that she grew quite close to them.  She grew to absolutely love them and respect them.  These gorillas were critically endangered; there were about 400 of them left and Dian continuously saw signs of them being poached.

Connie - Poaching - that's something I associate with rhino horns, elephant tusks, not really with gorillas.  What were they doing with them?

Georgia - Sometimes their hands and their feet would be sold to collectors and also the infants would be captured to be sold as pets.  And when this happened, the adult gorillas would fight to the death to basically prevent that, so this could be devastating to a gorilla community.  Dian saw this happening and, obviously, was very distressed by it and wanted to stamp this out to save what was a species on its last legs. So she started to organise anti-poaching patrols, destroying any trapper's snares that she found and she'd escort any poachers off the land.  And this is something she turned to active conservation but it kind of turned into almost a war with poachers and this was all operating outside of the support of the local community and the government who also wanted to end the poaching.

Connie - So this sounds quite radical - did it work?

Georgia - No, or at least it did not stop the poaching altogether and it made Dian a lot of enemies.  Things did not get any better and eventually a gorilla who is actually features in her PhD.  There's a photo him here...

Connie - Okay, so this is one of the gorillas that she was working with?

Georgia - His name was Digit and he was one of her favourites, and she found him basically dead with his hands and his head removed and at this point things got really personal, and escalated.  There were reports of her using stinging nettles to torture the poachers, kidnapping their children and even pretending to use witchcraft to try and scare people off.

Connie - God, that's very dark - isn't it?

Georgia - It is a dark story and it doesn't end well.  This all came to a head and Dian Fossey was found murdered in her cabin one morning.  No-one really knows who did it.  It could have been a poacher - there are loads of different theories and we might never know for sure.  What is known is that she made a lot of enemies.

Connie - That's quite a harrowing story and this is apparently conservation you're telling me.  Does it work?

Georgia - Some have argued that if Dian hadn't done what she'd done then we wouldn't have any gorillas left to study today, but this style is generally seen as self-defeating.  You can't stop everyone with brute force, and the idea of alienating the locals and operating this kind of war on poaching goes against what is now the general consensus of conservation.

Connie - So she's obviously got quite a story, she's quite well known but the conservation, was that all for nothing?

Georgia - There is a light at the end of the tunnel.  What Dian Fossey undoubtedly did do was raise the profile and the understanding of these mountain gorillas that she loved so much, which meant that people all around the world were much more likely to donate funds to support their conservation.  And, although mountain gorillas are still critically endangered, there one of the few species whose numbers are actually on the rise.


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