Karisoke Revisited
A Study of Dian Fossey

Born in 1932 of an alcoholic father near San Francisco, Dian Fossey's parents divorced when she was 6 years old. Her mother remarried 1 year later. Her stepfather was very strict and she was raised by the househelp, eating with her parents only on Sundays and holidays.

After not succeeding in a pre-veterinarian course at San Jose State University, she graduated with a degree in Occupational Therapy.

In 1955, Dian Fosse ws employed at Kosair Crippled Children Hospital in Louisville on Eastern Parkway. She lived on Judge George Long's estate off of Bardstown Road in the servants quarters. She was very happy in this sylvan environment. It is now Glenmary Subdivision.

Dian Fossey became a good friend with Dr. Michael J. Henry's family on Summit Avenue, and while in Louisville visited there many times. In 1963, after using Mrs. Gaynee Henry's collateral Dian Fossey borrowed $8000.00 (1 year's salary) and went on a 7 week visit to Africa.

There she:

    1) Met actor William Holden who owned the popular Treetops Hotel in Nairobi and he introduced her to the white hunter John Alexander who guided her on her 7 week odyssey. Thereafter referred to as (white hunter) in her diary.
    2) She met Louis Leakey, noted paleontologist at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania.
    3) She also met Alan and Jo Ann Root who were photographing the mountain gorillas. This first exposure to the gorillas left an indelible impression on her.

Between 1963 and 1965, Dian Fossey wrote three articles on her Aftrican experience for the Sunday Magazine section of The Louisville Courier Journal.

In 1966, Dian Fossey attended a Louis Leakey lecture at the University of Louisville on the origin of man and Leakey stressed that someone should study the most humanoid animal "The Great Ape". Louis Leakey agreed to let Dian Fossey be his protégé and get her research funds, but stressed her need for a prophylactic appendectomy.

Dr. Orville Clark (still living in Louisville) gave her anesthetic and Dr. Bourbon Canfield (deceased) did her appendectomy at the old Methodist Evangelical Hospital now Norton Hospital Pavilion. She woke up in the recovery room hollering "I hope the gorillas are worth this".

During this time Mrs. Gaynee Henry introduced Dian Fossey to Father M. Raymond, a Trappist monk who wrote the best seller The Man Who Got Even With God. Dian Fossey called him the most exciting and stimulating man she ever met. They became intimate friends. Father Raymond encouraged her to go to Africa and study the gorillas.

Also at the time, Alexea Forrester, scion of a family she met in Africa, came to Louisville and fell in lover with her. He wanted to marry her, but Dian opted for Africa and the great apes.

Dian would later comment "I left my appendix and fiancé in the states".

Fossey arrived in the Congo in 1966 amid a fierce civil war and was captured, abused and threatened with death. She escaped and fled to nearby but more stable Rwanda.

There at 10,000 feet between Mount Karasimbia and Mount Visoke, Dian set up her mountain gorilla research station and called it Karasoke.

The high mountain camp was constantly fogged or misted, cold---freezing cold at night, wet and surrounded by unfriendly thorny nettles. Karisoke camp was shrouded in a canopy of the great Hygenia trees. There were six buildings constructed with corrugated metal, 3 feet off of the ground and all within a soccer field area. The site was both inspiring and forbidding. Using trackers, Dian would follow the different groups of gorilla and detail her observations nightly on her Olivetti typewriter.

It would take 8 years for each gorilla group to become habituated to her presence and that of other humans.

In 1969, noted National Geographic Magazine photographer Bob Campbell visited Karasoke to film and photograph the gorillas. Campbell was shy, quiet, nice looking, married, very English, and a good listener. Fossey was volatile, passionate and strong willed. After a stormy beginning, they became lovers.

In 1970, Fossey went to Cambridge to get her Ph.D. She discovered she was pregnant and got an abortion. She would later say "you can't be a cover girl for National Geographic Magazine and be pregnant".

Campbell recorded the first pictures of a mountain gorilla in the wild touching a human (Dian Fossey).

After a 2nd abortion, during which she hemorrhaged severely, Dr. Pete Weiss treated her from the nearby (1 hour away) town of Ruhengeri. Dr. Weiss became a regular nightly visitor to her camp high on the mountain. When the courtship became serious, Dian refused to trade the mountains and her gorillas for the town of Ruhengeri.

When photographer Robert Campbell left in 1972 Dian became depressed and began to drink heavily. Ultimately she returned to her study and protection of the mountain gorillas.

The gorillas' very existence (perhaps 280 left) was threatened. The ever expanding population of Rwanda, the constantly decreasing habitat and the poachers threatened to make the mountain gorillas like the Do Do Bird and the Passenger Pigeon.

Dian Fossey nursed back to health the captured baby gorillas that were dying. Ultimately she had to return the gorillas to the government officials. They gave them back to the original trappers who then shipped them to the zoo at Cologne, Germany. To capture one baby gorilla, six to eight adult protecting gorillas would be killed.

Becoming depressed and looking for support and encouragement, Dian Fossey visited Louis Leaky at Olduvai Gorge where they spent a week together on an elegant safari and Dr. Leakey fell madly in love with Dian. Again she returned to the gorillas.

Dian returned to her Karisoke camp. There she tried to protect her gorillas. Her most beloved gorilla "Digit" was killed by poachers. On February 3, 1978, Walter Cronkite in the lead story on the CBS evening news announced that "Digit is dead". Instantly Dian Fossey was world famous.

Fossey grieved and became more intense in protecting the gorillas. She would frighten, capture and beat the poachers, hold their cattle for ransom, burn their crops and even their house. Dian also angered and constantly challenged the local officials to enforce the law and assist her.

About this time Kelly Steward (daughter of actor Jimmy Stewart) came to study with Dian. They became great friends, until a handsome Scottish student, Sandy Harcourt came to study. Fossey became jealous of their friendship.

During these times, Fossey would lecture around the world, telling endearing stories about "her" gorillas on her Virunga Mountains in Rwanda. Funds were raised to support Karisoke Research Center.

While traveling Fossey worried that the direction and future of the Karisoke Research Center was changing in her absence. She accused Kelly Stewart and Sandy Harcourt of making changes. Fossey, despite reassurances, remained unconvinced.

While Dian was visiting actor Jimmy Stewart, Alfred Hitchcock approached her about doing a thriller chiller movie about the large, fearsome mountain gorillas. Dian said they were about as aggressive as a pet lambs. Hitchcock shuffled off and the movie was never made.

Fossey took a professorship at Cornell University for 3 years.

In 1985, fossey returned to Karisoke. She became a recluse, drank heavily, was frequently argumentative, paranoid, and treated the workers, fellow researchers and local officials with disdain and abuse.

Karisoke Research Center declined. The camp was poorly managed and equipment not repaired. The library of tapes and information stored in Dian's tent would be available only when Dian permitted. Only 5 Ph.D. theses were completed in 16 years.

Her behavior was unpredictable and morose. The camp occupants feared Fossey. She would not hire the local natives to help with research and did not use local veterinarians or physicians when the animals sickened.

Her health declined as she drank and smoked excessively.

On the early morning of December 26, 1985, Dian was found by her househelp lying on the floor in her pajamas dead from a machete wounds across the face and the top of her skull.

The cabin had a hole cut in the corrugated tin wall in the only place it could have been done as furniture had been built into wall everyplace else. This suggested that an insider was the murderer. The room was ransacked and in complete disarray, but nothing was taken.

The killer was probably an insider African either alone or as part of a conspiracy. Suspects included disgruntled staff, unhappy researchers, many local officials and poachers.

All of the camp people were jailed and released one by one as their alibi was substantiated. The tracker Rwelekana who had been recently fired remained jailed.

McGuire was the only white person in the camp at the time of her death and on the advice of the local American Consul, fled the country.

One year after her death, the local court found Rwelekana and McQuire guilty. The punishment was death by the firing squad. Nine months after the trail Rwelekana was reported to have hung himself in his cell. McQuire has always denied the killing.

Dian Fossey never developed the enduring, loving relationship that she so craved. At every marriage opportunity the gorillas were always the winners.

Failure to develop healthy relationships with peoples in nearby towns, lack of respect for the local population, constant worries about money, and the ultimate survival of the gorillas all contributed to he constant depression and volatile mood swings.

Communication, via mail, with the outside world was delayed or non-existent. Fosseys messages were never received or never answered enhancing her paranoia.

Dian suffered, but the gorilla's existence changed from barely surviving to thriving.


Fossey was constantly disappointed or failed by her peers, but her gorillas wee predictable, available and never disappointed her. Consequently Fossey would hurt humans to protect the unprotected gorillas. Her philosophy was if you see anyone in my park, shoot them. Anything goes to protect my animals.

The Wall Street Journal in March 2002 described Fossey as colorful, controversial and a racist alcoholic, who loved her gorillas more than the people.

Fossey and her subsequent researchers developed eco-tourism- (people viewing wildlife in their own environment.) This was and is a great economic benefit for the very poor country of Rwanda.

The loss of habitat from the ever-expanding population of Vermont size Rwanda perils the gorilla's existence.

Fossey is an icon for women the world over to venture out and to go for it.

Later in her life--like Don Quixote Diane fought battles that no longer existed.

If the mountain gorillas survive it will be because of what great people do. They die for what they believe./

Many heroes or famous people under scrutiny are not perfect, but do, in fact accomplish great things. Dian Fossey was one of these.

Diane was buried at Karisoke in the burial ground of her great apes, next to Digit, her favorite gorilla.

Her epitaph in the Karisoke Cemetery reads:

No One Loved Gorillas More

Rest In Peace, Dear Friend

Eternally Protected

In this Sacred Ground

For You Are Home

Where You Belong