The Godfather and the Controversial Martyr of Mountain Gorilla Research

The first scientist to study mountain gorillas full time in the wild was George Schaller. When he reviewed the literature he could find few verifiable facts, largely due to the secretive lifestyle of the gorilla in dense forest and bush. In 1959 he chose a research area in Kabara (DR Congo) because of its more open habitat, with various side-trips to Kisoro and Bwindi. Due to the chaos that overcame Congo on achieving independence he was forced to abandon his research after two years.

He concluded that gorillas were harmless, peaceful and tolerant vegetarians, though not necessarily gentle and quite unpredictable. All conflict between themselves and people came from defence of the group, with the exception of the occasional injured gorilla. He wrote two excellent books, one scientific in 1963 and a second informal one, The Year of the Gorilla, in 1966.

Next to arrive was the iconic, if sometimes controversial, Dian Fossey. In 1963 she had visited Kisoro and had heard Dr. Leakey’s call for a volunteer to further study gorillas so as to fill the gaps in Schaller’s research. In 1966 — even though she was a occupational therapist by training and had no relevant experience — Leakey chose her over better qualified applicants. He obtained funding from the National Geographic Society.

She began her research in Kabara. When the security situation deteriorated and she started to have serious problems with corrupt, and often drunk, military personnel, she had to abandon Congo after six months. She moved to Rwanda, and established her camp on the saddle between two Virunga Volcanoes. After the National Geographic Society grant stopped in 1978, she raised money through the Digit Fund, in memory of a gorilla who had been killed and had his hands chopped off.

For 18 years she shared the lives of the gorillas as they became habituated to each other and she became adept at gorilla behaviour. She was the first to identify gorilla individuals by their nose wrinkles. As well as doing research that expanded on Schaller’s work she strove to protect them from encroachment and poaching and was always concerned about their quality of life. One result was the foundation of the first specialist medical service for gorillas in 1986 (today’s Gorilla Doctors — see our interview with Dr. Fred Nizeyimana).

The more orthodox members of the science community did not approve of her methods. They said she wasn’t objective enough, that she empathised with and formed relationships with her subjects. She also did not have a good relationship with local officials. They resented her independent approach and lack of consultation. Local people resisted her efforts to prevent them from hunting and cattle grazing; poachers were her main adversaries. In 1985 Dian Fossey was murdered in her cabin; the crime remains unsolved.

Dian Fossey’s life and death, book and film Gorillas in the Mist put the mountain gorilla on centre stage.

photo: curious juveniles often approached Dian Fossey and sometimes grabbed her notebook; photo by Dean Jacobs (courtesy of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International)