If you’ve ever sat down and sobbed your way through the 1988 film Go­ril­las in the Mist, you prob­a­bly know a lit­tle about Dian Fossey. Along­side orang­utan ex­pert Biruté Galdikas and chim­panzee re­searcher Jane Goodall, she was one of three lead­ing fe­male pri­ma­tol­o­gists, dubbed ‘the Tri­mates’ – her work il­lu­mi­nated the com­plex so­cial re­la­tion­ships of moun­tain go­ril­las. Un­happy in early life, San Fran­cisco-born Dian found com­fort among an­i­mals. After work­ing in oc­cu­pa­tional ther­apy – which she later cred­ited for her suc­cess in­ter­act­ing with apes – she pooled her life sav­ings and trav­elled to Africa in 1963. There, she met palaeoan­thro­pol­o­gist Louis Leakey, who be­came her men­tor; in the Congo, she en­coun­tered wild moun­tain go­ril­las for the first time. Enamoured by their in­di­vid­u­al­ity and shy be­hav­iour, she be­gan a long-term study of the en­dan­gered apes, liv­ing along­side them in the Virunga Moun­tains. Dian won the go­ril­las’ trust by mim­ick­ing their sub­mis­sive vo­cal­i­sa­tions and ac­tions, and iden­ti­fied in­di­vid­u­als by their unique ‘noseprints’. Her re­search showed the world that these gen­tle gi­ants were not the vi­cious mon­sters films like King Kong would sug­gest. Over time, po­lit­i­cal up­heaval shifted her re­search to the Rwan­dan side of the moun­tains, where go­ril­las only knew hu­mans as poach­ers. An­gered by the slaugh­ter of an­i­mals she’d stud­ied so closely, Dian pivoted from re­search to anti-poach­ing con­ser­va­tion. Her mil­i­tant tac­tics made her many lo­cal en­e­mies, and in De­cem­ber 1985, she was blud­geoned to death in her home. Thank­fully, the re­search cen­tre she founded con­tin­ues to pro­tect Virunga’s go­ril­las.

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