Dian Fossey: The woman in the mist
Remembering the extraordinary life and tragic death of the renowned gorilla watcher
The Rwandans called her Nyiramachabelli — "the woman who lives alone on the mountain."
Indeed, zoologist Dian Fossey, who would have turned 82 today, conducted her research without other humans nearby. But she was never truly alone. Starting in 1966, Fossey took up residence with mountain gorillas. They became her life's work.
A native of San Francisco, Fossey began her professional life as an occupational therapist, but a 1963 trip to Africa and a meeting with anthropologist Louis Leakey changed everything. Fossey subsequently spent the next two decades studying primates, first in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and later in Rwanda. She is credited with scoring the first recorded instance of peaceful gorilla-to-human contact; a male gorilla named Peanuts touched her hand.
Fossey's favorite animal, a young male gorilla named Digit, was beheaded by poachers in 1977, spurring Fossey to double down on her research efforts and make even more vocal calls to the international community to help save the primates from hunters. She published an autobiography, Gorillas in the Mist, in 1983, which was later turned into a successful movie starring Sigourney Weaver.
Fossey never saw the film. She was found dead on Dec. 26, 1985, alone in her cabin, hacked to death by machetes. Her murder was never solved, though authorities believe Fossey's assailants were likely the same poachers she had rallied against.
1972: Dian Fossey watches a 400-pound gorilla in the Rwanda jungle. | (AP Photo/National Geographic Society)
November 1, 1985: Fossey and her team. | (Yann Arthus-Bertrand/Corbis)
Jan. 3, 1986: Fossey's coffin is lowered into the ground by friends and co-workers in Mount Visoke, Rwanda. | (AP Photo/Brenton Kelly)