In Rwanda, she was nicknamed Nyiramachabelli (“The woman who lives alone in the mountains”). On December 27, 1985, in the Virunga mountains, Dian Fossey, an American primatologist specializing in the study of the behavior of gorillas, was found dead by a cook in her small hut at Camp Karisoke. After defending herself, the 53-year-old scientist was shot six times in the head with a panga. One of them slit his face. Under his body, the police find his unused pistol. They also notice that a sheet metal plate is missing from the wall of the hut. Dian’s murderer, obviously familiar with the place, entered directly into her bedroom…

The investigators quickly dismiss the thesis of a theft that would have gone wrong. Indeed, none of Fossey’s possessions were stolen, not even the few thousand dollars in travelers checks she kept. Convinced it was indeed a premeditated murder, the police arrest all members of the primatologist’s team, including Rwandan Emmanuel Rwelekana, a tracker who allegedly tried to assassinate Fossey with a machete after being dismissed a few months earlier. One by one, the close colleagues of the fifties are questioned, then released. Only Rwelekana will never get out of prison, having killed himself by hanging during his incarceration…

Dian Fossey: 35 years of mystery

The Fossey team cleared, the investigators are interested in its activities. They discover that in her fight for the protection of the gorillas, the primatologist was at war with a certain Protais Zigiranyirazo, prefect of Ruhengeri suspected of being at the head of primate trafficking. The police suspect him of having ordered the murder of Fossey, but will never succeed in proving it… The track of Wayne McGuire is also studied. Fossey’s former assistant and friend, McGuire is suspected of having murdered his mentor to steal the manuscript for the sequel to his novel Gorillas in the Mist, published in 1983. Dissatisfied with his own research, McGuire was, according to investigators, ” ready for anything” to get the job done. Wayne McGuire has always denied his involvement in the murder of Dian Fossey, and it has never been proven. He was nevertheless sentenced to death by shooting by the Rwandan Court of Justice, but having returned to the United States in 1987, he never received his sentence.

Thirty-five years after the assassination of Dian Fossey, her murderer has never been formally identified. The scientist is now recognized as a pioneer in animal protection and one of the greatest primatologists in history, in particular for her valuable research and her commitment to the protection of gorillas. His book, Gorillas in the Mist, was the subject of a film adaptation in 1988. Fossey is interpreted there by the American Sigourney Weaver. The primatologist rests with those she loved, in the Karisoke cemetery that she herself had built for the gorillas. A month before her death, she had also declared: “I want to be buried here, in the cemetery where my gorillas lie.”

Dian Fossey © National Geographic

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Lara T.
Lara T.

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