CBC Digital Archives

Death of a mountain gorilla

Fascinating to scientists and zoo visitors alike, gorillas are the gentle giants of the animal world. Year by year, gorillas in the wild are losing habitat to advancing human settlement, prompting conservation groups and UN agencies to name 2009 the Year of the Gorilla. From a 1963 interview with a hunter who captures gorillas for zoos to a radio snapshot of wild gorillas in 2009, the CBC Digital Archives looks at these hairy, human-like creatures.

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His face welcomed tourists to Rwanda, and he was a favourite of American researcher Dian Fossey. But that wasn't enough to save Digit, a rare mountain gorilla, from a brutal death at the hands of poachers interested only in selling his head and hands as souvenirs. For 10 years Fossey watched Digit grow up as part of her work studying the gorillas of the Rwandan jungle. In this 1978 CBC Radio interview, the naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough says his friend Fossey is distraught by her beloved Digit's death.
• Dian Fossey was a protege of Dr. Louis Leakey, a renowned archaeologist who studied human evolution. (Another of his proteges was chimpanzee researcher Dr. Jane Goodall.) Leakey encouraged Fossey to study the mountain gorilla, and in 1966 she began her research in Zaire. She moved to Rwanda the following year. • With the help of a grant from the National Geographic Society, Fossey established the Karisoke Research Centre in 1967. In order for the gorillas to become accustomed to her presence, she spent thousands of hours sitting, observing them and taking notes on their behaviour. She even copied their behaviours - vocalizations, chest-thumping and grooming - in order to gain their confidence.

• In a 1981 article for National Geographic, Fossey wrote: "Digit was a favourite among the habituated gorillas I was studying: In fact, I was unashamed to call him 'my beloved Digit.'" According to Fossey's article, Digit was protecting his family group from six poachers who had set antelope traps. He was stabbed five times with a spear but killed one of the poachers' dogs before dying. Fossey and her assistant, Ian Redmond, captured a poacher who then gave up his accomplices. Four of the six were jailed.

• After Digit's death, Fossey founded the Digit Fund to raise money for the protection of mountain gorillas and their habitat. It is now known as the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. 

Medium: Radio
Program: Assignment
Broadcast Date: July 3, 1964
Guest(s): Deets Pickett
Host: Bill McNeil
Reporter: Dan Price
Duration: 4:26

Last updated: August 19, 2014

Page consulted on February 20, 2015

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