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Dian Fossey, Friend of Gorillas

Getty Images / The Life Images Collection / Neil Selkirk

Fossey found that when it came to protecting gorillas, playing nice didn’t work.

Dian Fossey, who would have turned 80 today, may have been the one human being who knew gorillas best. A zoologist whose work with gorillas went far beyond research, she learned to mimic their behavior in order to be accepted by them, and eventually gained friends among the beasts once thought to be ferocious killing machines.

As Fossey proved, that impression was so wrong. Although gorillas can fiercely protect their territory and families, they’re mostly peaceful vegetarians. Fossey learned this – and much more about the life and social structure of gorillas – through years of living in their habitat in the forests of Rwanda.

But Fossey’s international reputation wasn't gained just by unlocking the secrets of the gorilla. She was just as well known for her conservation efforts and her fight against poachers. Fossey found that when it came to protecting gorillas, playing nice didn’t work – so she mirrored the dirty tactics of the poachers by destroying their traps, capturing and humiliating the poachers, even setting fire to their camps.

It may be that Fossey’s anti-poaching efforts led to her unsolved 1985 murder. But what’s sure is that those efforts made a difference for gorillas. Through her work – as well as her book, "Gorillas in the Mist," and the movie that was based on it – Fossey brought much-needed attention to the poaching problem and helped bring the mountain gorilla back from the brink of extinction.