Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dian Fossey Life and Death

A Complicated Woman

Dian Fossey
Dian Fossey

Were she alive today, Dian Fossey likely would agree that she was both the best and worst thing to happen to the mountain gorillas of central Africa.

Utterly untrained, the native Californian journeyed to the continent in the 1960s to begin her famed field study of the giant apes. She would become the world's foremost advocate for the beasts.

But her study brought unprecedented international attention, and that attracted tourists, some of whom tramp on gorilla habitat, disturb the animals' migratory patterns and introduce human diseases into the endangered species.

Fossey was a complicated — independent and heroic, but also petty, selfish and fragile.

She made a few friends but far more enemies during two decades in the jungle.

She was feared and reviled by the native poachers who killed gorillas to sell their trophy — the hands and feet, which were made into ashtrays, and the heads.

Poached gorillas
Poached gorillas

She was competitive and often combative with fellow researchers, few of whom she trusted.

She frequently sparred with her funding sources, including the National Geographic Society, over her insistence that she maintain absolute control over her research center in Rwanda.

She had a complex relationship with American ambassadors in Africa, who eventually came to view her as more trouble than she was worth. And she parried regularly with the Rwandan government, its parks supervisors and its tourism office--nettled relationships that likely spelled her doom.

Fossey was found hacked to death in 1985. A Rwandan kangaroo court convicted two men in the murder, but international authorities dismissed those suspects as nothing more than convenient foils propped up by the government.

Her murder was considered unsolved for more than 15 years.

But today the man believed responsible, a mysterious former Rwandan government official known as Mr. Z, is in custody awaiting trial.

The Fossey allegation is the least of his worries. Mr. Z faces no charges in that case but in the appalling 1994 genocide of nearly one million ethnic minorities in Rwanda.

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