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Dian Fossey: Prime(ate) Example, or Colonial Conservationist?

Updated: Feb 26

An iconic figure in conservation, the late Dian Fossey’s dedication to protecting primate populations marked the beginning of a conservation success story in the Virunga Mountains. Her work earned her both fame and infamy however, with questions arising regarding the ethics of her practice. Was Fossey a perfect primatologist, or was she involved in some monkey business?

In 1966, palaeoanthropologist and archaeologist Louis Leakey was lecturing in Kentucky when he was approached by a curious and enthusiastic Dian Fossey. Despite working as an occupational therapist at the time, Fossey’s passion for zoology was evident. As such, Leakey entrusted her with a task of utmost importance: to observe and monitor one of the only two populations of mountain gorillas worldwide. The size of the Virunga group of gorillas was dwindling due to the ever-growing threat posed by poachers. The chance to study, and potentially help protect, this amazing species was an offer she could not refuse.

Fossey lived amongst these gorillas in the mountains of Rwanda for 18 years. Gaining their trust initially proved difficult, leading her to employ some unorthodox techniques - in a process known as ‘habituation’, Fossey behaved in a gorilla-like manner, beating her chest and munching on celery stalks. This allowed the group to become accustomed to Fossey’s presence, facilitating observations and interactions crucial to her research. Rare and incredible insights into the behavioural ecology of the species were documented, including specialised vocal communications and inter-group migration. Her study yielded some of the most detailed and captivating observations of mountain gorillas in history.

Fossey pictured with two young mountain gorillas in the Virunga mountains, some time between 1969-72. Image Credit: JasonB on Flickr.

Fossey’s work captured the attention of both scientists and the general public alike. In an interview that placed her on the cover of National Geographic magazine, she told of the gentle behaviours she had observed. This revolutionised the way gorillas were viewed; the knowledge that Fossey, nicknamed Nyirmachabelli (‘the woman who lives alone on the mountain’), was living safely amongst these presumably violent and dangerous creatures both shocked and intrigued the world. Her accounts of their temperament incited a desire within many to experience this for themselves. For the first time, the public became invested in gorillas and their conservation. 

Though her compassion towards the gorillas she so loved was evident, reports suggest that Fossey could be less empathetic towards her own species. Her war with poachers was well documented and is often termed a ‘fatal obsession’, with many speculating that this ultimately drove her death. She was always averse to poaching, fighting to establish dedicated ranger patrols around her research centre to restrict illegal activity. This fight became much more personal however following the death of one gorilla with whom she had formed a special bond - when Digit was killed by poachers in 1977, Fossey sought to bring those responsible to justice herself. Her own writings describe how she captured, interrogated and even tortured those she suspected of poaching, whipping them with stinging nettles and pretending to use black magic in an effort to deter them. She became increasingly protective over the land the gorillas occupied, restricting and interfering with the everyday activities of local people to eliminate all threats. Reports suggest she may have even shot cattle to prevent farmers from allowing their livestock to encroach on the gorilla’s land. Such militant tactics were a tremendous source of conflict between Fossey and the Rwandans, earning her a new nickname: ‘The Witch of the Virungas’.

The grave of Dian Fossey, who was buried in the mountains of Rwanda alongside her beloved primate companion Digit and other members of his family who had been killed by poachers. Image Credit: Zinkiol on Wikimedia Commons.

Fossey’s sense of resentment and mistrust towards those living locally to the research centre only grew until her untimely death. Increased attention and funding was given to mountain gorilla conservation in the aftermath of Digit’s demise but, much to her displeasure, this was primarily assigned to educational schemes over poaching-prevention measures. This appeared to be the final straw for Fossey; she began to exclude all Rwandans from her research centre and the surrounding area, even mocking schemes that attempted to engage local people with conservation and help poachers find alternative means of generating income. Fossey refused to believe that those who had previously threatened her beloved group of gorillas could ever help to save them.

On the 26th December 1985, Dian Fossey was attacked and killed with a machete that she herself had confiscated from a poacher atop the Virunga mountains. Her murder remains a mystery to this day. Though members of her research team were initially blamed for her death, many speculate that her treatment of the people of Rwanda was the ultimate cause of her demise.

Her adamant refusal to cooperate with local people leads many to believe there was an element of colonialism within Fossey’s conservation tactics. Rather ironically, the work which continues today in her name often contradicts her desire to exclude humans from gorilla land  - the charity she founded, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, endeavours to involve local communities in their conservation efforts. Their belief in the importance of this is so strong that it is encompassed within their motto of ‘Helping people. Saving gorillas.’ Such integrative, community-based approaches to conservation appear to have been highly effective. The 2016 Virunga Massif Gorilla Survey recorded 604 mountain gorillas within the population, a marked increase from the 284 individuals remaining during the 1980s.

There is no doubt that the work of Dian Fossey was of great importance to conservation. Her study techniques revolutionised the field of animal behaviour and captured the attention of the world, generating public interest in mountain gorillas that paved the way for many successful conservation programmes. It must also be considered however whether the extreme measures she took to safeguard the species she cared for partially hindered their recovery; Fossey’s alienation and exclusion of local people, who have been so integral to recent conservation efforts, may have driven further losses that could have been prevented. Some argue though that her extreme tactics may have been necessary to ensure there was even a population of mountain gorillas to protect, with renowned primatologist Jane Goodall remarking that “if Dian hadn't done what she had, there would be no gorillas left in Rwanda to study”.

Fossey’s work provides the next generation of conservationists both with valuable data upon which to build, and an important tale to reflect upon. The crucial role of people in conservation should not be ignored - though we are often the reason many species are under threat; we also often have the power to aid their recovery. Cases such as that of Dian Fossey are crucial to look back on when deciding what the future of conservation should look like: is the exclusion of local people in some cases essential to species recovery, or an example of colonialism within conservation?

About the author: Alex Powell is an Ecology and Conservation Biology student at the University of Sheffield, with particular interests in zoology, palaeobiology and climate change. He hopes to pursue a career in ecological research and volunteers with the RSPB in his spare time. You can find out more on his LinkedIn page.

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