Explore Dian Fossey’s Mountain Gorilla research through the lens of Bob Campbell’s photographs, 1968-1972, with a look at gorillas today.
A Century of Mountain Gorilla Conservation
Mountain Gorillas were named Gorilla gorilla beringei in honor of German army officer Captain Robert von Beringe, who discovered they were a different subspecies than Western Lowland Gorillas in 1902, in the Virunga Mountains of East Africa. Their range includes Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa. By 1922, naturalists recognized the gorillas were threatened by habitat loss, human encroachment and hunting. Gorillas could not survive without the support of conservation intervention.
King Albert I of Belgium created Africa’s first national park to protect gorillas and other species, prohibiting locals from pursuing traditional agricultural and hunting practices that threatened gorillas. But without park rule enforcement, conflicting government policies encouraged hunting and agriculture expansion without concern for the natural environment.
1967 to Today
In 1967, Dian Fossey founded the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda to study Mountain Gorillas in the wild when only a few hundred remained. Gorillas naturally avoid human contact, but persistent efforts by Fossey and photographer Bob Campbell acclimated some gorilla groups to accept them as members, opening new possibilities for research. This allowed better photographs, enhanced data collection and unprecedented monitoring of gorilla well-being, and led to the wildlife tourism that supports research and conservation today.
Fossey is a legend in primate conservation who conducted groundbreaking studies of gorilla behavior. She faced and overcame many obstacles and ultimately gave her life to gorilla protection. Fossey died on December 26, 1985. Her murder has never been solved. Despite many challenges, the project continues as The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, which carries on her legacy to study and protect the lives of wild gorillas today while investing in science, education and people.
In November 2018, Mountain Gorillas were reclassified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature from critically endangered to endangered, one small step further from extinction. An example of one of the world’s most successful conservation stories, in large part due to the work started by Dian Fossey and made famous through the images of Bob Campbell.
Peek into the lives of the people and gorillas at The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. The project has been dedicated to the conservation, protection and study of gorillas and their habitats in Africa since 1967.
The success of the project relies on educating the next generation of scientists and conservationists, while also investing in local people’s basic needs so that communities can thrive and work together to preserve gorillas and other wildlife.
- Conservation Status: Endangered. Population: 1004 remain
- Where They Live: Rwanda, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo
- Interesting Fact: Made famous by Dian Fossey; featured in the movie Gorillas in the Mist.
- Conservation Status: Critically Endangered. Population: Around 6,800 remain
- Where They Live: Democratic Republic Of Congo
- Interesting Fact: May be the most threatened of all the subspecies – has declined by ~60% in the past two decades.
- Conservation Status: Critically Endangered. Population: Around 400,000 remain
- Where They Live: Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic Of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon
- Interesting Fact: Only gorilla subspecies found in zoos
Cross River Gorillas
- Conservation Status: Critically Endangered. Population: Around 300 remain
- Where They Live: Cameroon, Nigeria
- Interesting Fact: Because so few are left and only in remote areas, this subspecies is mostly exclusively observed in camera trap images.
Adapted from the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund website
Fossey’s Gorilla Research
During her early years at Karisoke, Fossey worked tirelessly in extremely difficult field conditions to document countless aspects of gorilla behavior and biology. In 1969, she rescued orphaned infants Coco and Pucker from near-death. Nursing them back to health at Karisoke helped her to understand behaviors, such as vocalization, that she could not observe in gorilla groups unaccustomed to her presence. With improved knowledge of gorilla behavior, Fossey later succeeded in habituating wild gorilla groups to human presence, allowing her to collect better data. Fossey collected audio recordings and skeletal materials, and conducted field observations to document the lives of Mountain Gorillas.
Simply maintaining the camp required great efforts by many individuals, including adequate funding and constant management. Karisoke was isolated and supplies had to be carried up the mountain on foot. There was no electricity or running water. Researchers lived in tents until Fossey eventually built small cabins for herself and her team.
Mountain Gorillas live surprisingly close to people. Rwanda is Africa’s most densely populated country. With limited land, Rwandan families move ever higher up mountain slopes with a historical reliance on farming, trapping, hunting, free-grazing cattle and collecting firewood, clearing trees as they go. Activities continue to encroach on, shrink and fragment forest habitats, limiting the availability of the foods and shelter gorillas need to survive.
By the late 1800s, forest clearing had separated gorilla populations. Throughout the 1900s, human population growth in Rwanda made land scarce, so people bordering protected areas sought resources there out of necessity. Lack of park funding and sporadic rule enforcement exacerbated these problems. Fossey worked tirelessly to eliminate poaching, cattle grazing and human encroachment in the park.
Mountain Gorillas are among the world’s most critically endangered species. They live only among the steep volcanic slopes of the Virunga Mountains in East Africa’s Albertine Rift, an area split by the borders of three nations: The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. Two active volcanoes further limit the gorillas’ territory. The dense vegetation of the cloud forest offers them ample food, while the steep terrain isolates them from threats. The gorillas’ survival is due in part to their protective habitat, which is unaccommodating and sometimes dangerous for humans.
Bob Campbell, a British Kenyan resident, was an inexperienced photographer when he got a lucky break — National Geographic assigned him to document Fossey’s Mountain Gorilla research in 1969. Photographing jet-black gorillas in clouded forests was difficult with available photographic equipment. He proposed habituating the timid animals closer to humans, contradicting Fossey’s chosen scientific protocol. However, winning her approval allowed him to film historic first images of peaceful human-gorilla contact. His photographs captured the public’s attention in 1970 and 1971, earning worldwide recognition for Fossey and increasing interest in gorilla conservation. Campbell’s work at Karisoke and throughout East Africa contributed greatly to African wildlife photography.
Dian Fossey remains one of few wildlife conservation figures recognized worldwide for her work. She founded the Karisoke Research Center for the study of Rwanda’s Mountain Gorillas in September 1967 and is credited with preventing their extinction. Despite her mysterious murder on December 26, 1985, the project continues to study and protect the lives of wild gorillas today. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is now the world’s longest running and largest organization dedicated fully to gorilla conservation and focuses on continuing Dian’s legacy of daily protection and study of gorilla families as well as training the next generation of African conservationists and helping local communities who share the gorillas’ forest home. Today Mountain Gorillas are among the most monitored wildlife species, thanks to Dian’s nearly 20-year residency at Karisoke.
Sanwekwe was a local tracker and is under-recognized for his contributions to gorilla research and conservation. He guided Carl Akeley to Mt. Mikeno in the 1920s, tracking the specimens still on exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. In 1959, he tracked gorillas for George Schaller’s behavioral and census research. Through his expertise, Fossey learned gorilla behavior and tracking. She credits Sanwekwe’s involvement for the success of her first gorilla photographs at Kabara in 1963. He later worked with her at Karisoke.
Gorilla protection once focused on excluding local people like Sanwekwe from parks, but current conservation practice depends on community participation. Local involvement in wildlife conservation and tourism fosters community investment in natural resources. This approach is essential, as people are one of the greatest threats to wildlife in Africa.
These images captured historic firsts that changed popular understanding of gorillas. In June 1969, Campbell documented Fossey in visual contact with Rafiki and Peanuts, members of Group 8. Before this moment, no person had been photographed in the same frame with a wild Mountain Gorilla. One year later, in June 1970, Campbell documented the first peaceful physical contact between a Mountain Gorilla, Peanuts (one of Fossey’s research gorillas), and a human. National Geographic published images from the event, showing Peanuts and Fossey in close contact, though the shutter did not quite capture the moment of Peanuts’ touch. Fossey called this one of the most memorable moments of her life.
Gorillas are highly social, living in groups averaging about nine individuals. There is a hierarchy relating to sex, age and dominance within each group, led by a silverback male identifiable by a patch of silver fur on his back. Gorilla groups typically include females, blackback (young) males, juveniles and infants.
Behavioral researchers identify both groups and individuals. Observing and understanding individual personalities improves accuracy when monitoring and recording behavior. Habituated groups are conditioned to accept human presence and are strictly regulated, balancing research with tourism for gorilla well-being. Having researchers and tourists on the ground can benefit a gorilla population and protect them from poachers and illegal hunting. Mountain Gorilla groups are monitored closely, often accompanied by a researcher or tracker from morning until night.
Except where noted, all items are from Bob Campbell Papers, Special & Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida. Gift of Heather Campbell. Photos are printed from digitized color positive slides. Special thanks to Tara Stoinski, Ph.D. and the team at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.