Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dian Fossey Life and Death

Living with Gorillas

With Leakey's funding, Fossey established what she christened the Karisoke Research Center, named for the two mountain peaks that framed it, Mt. Karisimbi and Mt. Visoke. The center was in northwest Rwanda, a dirt-poor nation of 6 million, in its Parc des Volcans, near the country's border with Zaire (now the Democratic Repulic of Congo) and just 10 miles from Uganda.

Central Africa, showing Rwanda, Uganda and other countries
Central Africa, showing Rwanda,
Uganda and other countries

Fossey made a decision to base her research work closer to the gorillas than to civilization. From the nearest road, her camp was a three-hour climb up a path that ascended 4,000 feet — "so high up that you shiver more than you sweat," Fossey wrote.

She lived an austere lifestyle, dedicating herself to daily field observation of the gorilla groups living within hiking distance of Karisoke. She lived in a tent for many months, then directed the construction of a small, tin-roofed cabin that better protected her from the frequent rain and chilly air. Except for the occasional visitor, her only regular contact with the outside world was a monthly grocery excursion to the village at the base of the mountain.

By most assessments, Fossey was fabulously successful in working with the animals during her early years in Africa. She spent countless hours in the bush, observing the gorillas and documenting their behavior, breeding and interplay.

Over months and years, the relentless time she spent with the animals at close quarters began to pay off as the gorillas became more at ease with her presence. The curious animals began to approach her ever more closely. She copied their movements and gestures, instinctively understanding this form of communication could be a bridge. She wrote in her journal:

"I've been following one gorilla group around all month, and now I'm able to get within 30 to 60 feet of them and they are not afraid of me. To be perfectly frank, I think they are quite confused as to my species! I've gotten them accustomed to me by aping them, and they are fascinated by my facial grimaces and other actions that I wouldn't be caught dead doing in front of anyone. I feel like a complete fool, but this technique seems to be working, and because of the increased proximity I've been able to observe a lot never recorded before."

Over time, Fossey documented the familial relationships within eight groups of gorillas, numbering nearly 100 in all, that lived in the vicinity of her camp. Fossey estimated there were just 250 mountain gorillas in all.

She gave names to each of the apes — Uncle Bert, Peanuts, Amok. But she developed a particular kinship with a young male she named Digit, first encountered soon after she arrived in Africa. As he matured, the gorilla exhibited a bold curiosity about Fossey, and over several years they developed a relationship so close that it was considered unprecedented between the two species.

Digit and other gorillas in his group began treating Fossey as a de facto ape. She was allowed to sit in their midst, hold the infants, groom the adults and, in turn, be groomed. She would nap with them, play with them, and even eat with them, joining the gorillas as they dined on leaves, fruit, seeds, flowers, roots and herbs. (She generally passed on the other staples of their diet, insects and clay.)

Even the dominant silverback males — who could weigh 400 pounds and are regarded as aggressive and potentially dangerous — began to accept Fossey's presence.

In January 1970, the relationships between Fossey, Digit and the other mountain gorillas were documented in a cover story she wrote for National Geographic magazine. The images of Fossey communing with the great apes captured the hearts of the world.

Journalists and documentary filmmakers rushed to Rwanda for their own look at Fossey and her hairy friends. The attention attracted additional funding, and Karisoke began to resemble a true research center, with several new cabins constructed to house visitors. University students began vying for positions as research assistants at Karisoke, and research scientists angled for temporary positions working alongside the famous gorilla-watcher.

Just three years in Africa, Fossey was at the top of her profession as a field researcher.

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