Updated:
Original:
Year
1985
Month Day
December 26

World-renowned primatologist Dian Fossey is found murdered in Rwanda

On this day in 1985, primatologist and conservationist Dr. Dian Fossey is found murdered in her cabin at Karisoke, a research site in the mountains of Rwanda. It is widely believed that she was killed in connection with her lifelong crusade against poaching.

An animal lover from a young age, Fossey began her career as an occupational therapist. She would later credit her work with children for helping her earn the trust of the mountain gorillas she studied. In 1963, she borrowed money in order to finance an extended trip to Africa. Her travels brought her into contact with the archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey and wildlife photographers Alan and Joan Root and introduced her to the work of primatologist Jane Goodall. She published several articles about her travels and returned to the United States, but in 1966 the Leakeys helped her secure funding to study gorillas in the Congo.

Political unrest in the Congo led Fossey to flee the country and set up her camp, Karisoke, in the Rwandan foothills of the Virunga Mountains. There, she studied and interacted extensively with the native gorillas. Fossey eventually received a Ph.D. in zoology from Cambridge University and lectured for several years at Cornell. Her research on gorilla societies greatly enhanced mankind's understanding of one of its closes evolutionary relatives. Fossey is best known, however, as a fierce opponent of poaching. Park rangers were known to accept bribes, allowing poachers to set up traps and routinely kill gorillas in the national park where Fossey worked. After poachers brutally killed her favorite gorilla, Digit, in 1977, Fossey launched a public and somewhat obsessive crusade to protect gorillas and punish poachers. Fossey destroyed traps and was even known to detain poachers, sometimes physically beating them. She cultivated a reputation among the locals as a practitioner of dark magic in an effort to keep people from harming her gorilla friends.

Her efforts garnered worldwide attention to the anti-poaching cause, but may have led to her death. Though an allegedly jealous fellow researcher was convicted in absentia for her murder in Rwanda, many believe that her killing was revenge for her treatment of poachers. She was buried in a cemetery at Karisoke, alongside Digit and other gorillas killed by poachers. Though she had become reclusive and bitter toward the end of her life, the final entry in her journal was a hopeful one: "When you realize the value of all life, you learn to dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future." The fund she founded, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, carries on her efforts to protect gorillas to this day.

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