4 Women Conservationists You Should Know About: Fossey, Goodall, Maathai, and Shekdrick

Photograph by Hugo Van Lawick via National Geographic

According to the African Wildlife Foundation, “women are making important breakthroughs” and are vital to African conservation efforts. Here are four heroine tales anyone interested in African conservation efforts should know about:

Dian Fossey’s famous 1983 memoir Gorillas in the Mist gives a thrilling and intimate look into her thirteen years spent studying mountain gorillas living in the Virunga volcanic mountain range of Rwanda. Fossey’s scientific zeal for these gentle giants led to her conservation efforts. She staunchly opposed the poaching of gorillas and the black market that created a demand for gorilla skins, hands, and heads as trophies. She created a nature preserve for the study of gorillas, the Karisoke Research Center, where she was found murdered in 1985, presumably by the poaches she opposed. Although the Center was looted and destroyed in the Rwandan civil war, her legacy continues through the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, a charitable organization dedicated to the protection of mountain gorillas and through the many discoveries she made about individual gorilla personalities, their strong familial relationships, and how they organize within societal structures.


While Dian Fossey dedicated her life’s work to Rwandan mountain gorillas, Jane Goodall devoted hers to Tanzanian chimpanzees. The author of numerous books, including two autobiographies in letters, Africa in My Blood and Beyond Innocence, Goodall founded the Gombe Stream Research Center in Gombe National Park, Tanzania, and the Jane Goodall Institute for Wild Life Research, Education, and Conservation to provide ongoing support for field research on wild chimpanzees. Today Dr. Goodall travels the world giving lectures that spread her hopeful message by encouraging young people to make a difference in their world. One of her first books, In the Shadow of Man recounts how Goodall, her mother, and African assistants journeyed to the remote Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve in Tanzania, overcame countless obstacles, and eventually Goodall was welcomed into a troop of chimps and got to know them as individuals.


Wangari Maathai environmental conservation program, the Green Belt Movement is responsible for planting over 51 million trees in Kenya by empowering Kenyan women to help protect and sustain natural resources.  In Unbowed, Maathai shares her story of how a girl from rural Kenya grew up to start an environmental revolution and works to reform the government. She was beaten and jailed on multiple occasions, but with courage and persistence, Wangari was undeterred and in 2004, she found herself on the world stage becoming the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.


Moving away from primates, Daphne Shekdrick’s heartfelt and humorous memoir Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story introduces readers to her love of animals and her work as a conservationist. In 1974, Shekdrick became the first person to successfully raise a newborn orphaned elephant and now runs an orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in Nairobi, Kenya, that is responsible for raising over 200 orphaned-elephants.


These are important women conservationists!

About Kristen LePine

KRISTEN LEPINE is the co-founder and Executive Director of Historic Heroines. An accomplished writer, educator and mother, Kristen is often inspired by history and current events. She wrote about Nellie Bly and mental health care in CRACKED POTS, a play commissioned by Theatre J in Washington DC. Currently she is working on a historical novel set in ancient Sparta. Visit her at www.kristenlepine.com.

%d bloggers like this: