I’m early for the train. I am ALWAYS early for the train, something drilled into me by my parents. I’ve already slowly browsed the small newsagents when my attention is drawn to a small bookshelf in the corner of the station. It’s one of those ones that you can swap a book or give money to charity. I read through the titles to see if any catch my attention… some teen fiction, phrase books, lots of Dan Brown, nothing out of the ordinary.

Then one catches my eye, an older looking hardback, a little battered around the edges but I pull it out of the shelf to take a closer look. The book is ‘Woman In The Mists’ by Farley Mowat and tells the story of someone called Dian Fossey who worked with gorillas. It seemed interesting, I put some money in the tin, popped my new book in my handbag, and headed to take a seat on the platform. Must not miss the train.

Little did I know, this book was going to capture my attention in ways I never thought possible and was my introduction into the world of ‘The Trimates’ and how 3 women have not only contributed to, and revolutionised, primate conservation.

Let’s take a trip back to the mid-twentieth century and a time when not much was known about hominids (which includes a number of primate species, alongside humans). A man named Louis Leaky was putting together a team to learn more about great apes, their behaviour, their lives – surely the study of our closest animal cousins would lead to fascinating results?

The usual circle of researchers that Leaky would usually enlist (read: men), were not inspiring him, so he found some unconventional candidates (read: women) instead. What followed was 3 women who were able to completely redefine animal research by abandoning the concept of how ‘things have always been done’ and shake things up. They make waves in the science community by immersing themselves in some of the world’s most inhospitable jungles to learn more than anyone ever had before.

Their names are Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, and Biruté Galdikas.

We should know them, we should tell people about them, and we should aspire to be more like them.

So, let’s take a closer look.

The Trimates: Dian Fossey

The Trimates: Dian Fossey
Dian & Digit May 1977 (Credit: Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund)

Dian Fossey is known for her work with Mountain Gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei). However, she started her professional life as an occupational therapist, but she always dreamed of working with animals. She was fierce and was certainly a person of action over talking, and she took all her life savings and a bank loan to finance her first trip to Africa. Fossey took her fate into her own hands and, in 1966, convinced Leaky to send her to the Congo to research the gorillas. She continued her work despite being faced with civil war, political violence, and threats from poachers. When the political situation in Congo escalated, she continued her work across the border in Rwanda.

She was able to live amongst the gorillas that she was studying to gain valuable and new insights into their behaviour. Despite incredible success with her work, she felt that she did not have the right qualifications to reach her potential and in 1970 she enrolled to study animal behaviour at Cambridge University. Where, splitting her time between the UK and Africa, she gained her Ph.D in 1974.
During her work, she was infamous for undertaking what she termed ‘active conservation’, which often meant that she was personally trekking through the gorilla habitat to physically remove traps, confronting poachers, and using her own funds to employ anti-poaching rangers.

Sadly, many believe that this was part of what led to her murder whilst living at the research centre. This crime remains unsolved.
Her legacy continues through the work of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, which she established before her death, which operates within the work of the Karisoke Research Centre.

The Trimates: Jane Goodall

The Trimates: Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall with a chimpanzee at the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Centre
(Credit: Fernando Turmo/the Jane Goodall Institute)

Jane Goodall is known for her work with Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Despite starting her career with no university education, having left school at 18, she secured work as a secretary. However, she was no ordinary secretary, she was Leaky’s secretary, and her enthusiasm soon led to her being sent to Tanzania to study chimpanzees. During her study of behaviour, she was the first to discover non-human animal use of tools when watching chimps using sticks to catch termites. Jane was known amongst scientists for her different approach to her work, that was not always praised, however, was clearly effective. She focused on learning about the individual personalities of the chimpanzees she watched and even referred to them by names, rather than the ‘traditional’ scientific method of using numbers to identify different individuals.

Goodall was able to eventually gain a Ph.D in Ethology (animal behaviour) from Cambridge University, despite never having gained an undergraduate degree.

In 1977, she founded The Jane Goodall Institute which continues to this day to coordinate projects which protect chimps in Tanzania, focusing on community action which actively involves local residence. Jane Goodall herself continues to work to inspire conservation by travelling the world giving talks about the threat’s chimpanzees face and related environmental issues. She also run an education programme for young people called ‘Roots & Shoots’ which encourages children to care for people, animals, and the environment. It provides free resources and activities to reach communities that might otherwise not engage in the natural world.

The Trimates: Biruté Galdikas

The Trimates: Biruté Galdikas
Biruté Galdikas in 2011 (Credit: Wikipedia)

Biruté Galdikas is known for her work with orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus and Pongo abelii). In 1971, she was able to convince Leaky to invest in her passion, as he had with Goodall and Fossey, allowing her to pursue her dream of studying orangutans in the wild. This was bold as orangutans had not been studied much previously due to the species being illusive and often solitary.

Biruté didn’t let these challenges get in the way of her want to research these creatures. It took her 12 years of work, but she was able to gain their trust to the point where they tolerated her presence amongst them, and she began learning about their behaviour. She is the least well know of the trimates due to there being less frequent publications regarding her work. However, this is due to the difficulties she had to overcome in studying them and the fact that females often do not breed until they are at least 15 years old – meaning that she was working on a much longer timeline and prioritised (and continues to prioritise) the pursuit of knowledge over fame.

She has an impressive academic record with an undergraduate degree in Psychology and Zoology from UCLA, where she stayed on to study a master’s degree in Anthropology. Through her work she was also able to gain a Ph.D in Biological Anthropology.
Her tireless work studying the orangutans has led to a better understanding of the species, including the intervals between reproduction, the associated ecology, social organisation, and mating systems, all of which are vital in implementing effective conservation.

In 1986 she set up Orangutan Foundation International to enable active conservation with a focus on orangutans and the tropical rainforests they call home.

By learning more about the great apes, they were also able to help us learn more about what it means to be human. The study of primates is vital to the understanding of the history of humans – and the trimates have produced a wealth of work between them the importance of which we cannot truly appreciate.

The enduring legacy of these women, and of the research and discovery associated with the work of the trimates is fantastic, but as a woman who is trying to navigate her way through the world of conservation, it’s empowering to read how these women were able breakdown barriers and pave the way for others to follow. Women are increasingly gaining access to leadership roles in conservation, and they are gaining recognition in what they can offer in terms of protecting the natural world.

By improving representation of diverse groups across the conservation sector and continuing and building upon the legacy of the trimates, we can achieve more and make a truly significant impact.

Additional Reading:

How Three Women Known As The “Trimates” Revolutionized The Field Of Primatology by Ben Taub (IFL Science)

If You Loved Apes as a Kid (or an Adult), These Three Women Are Probably Why by D.R.Medlen

Jane Goodall Institute – About Jane

Roots & Shoots

Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund – Dian Fossey Biography

Orangutan Foundation International – Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas

The “Trimates”, The Founding Mothers of Primatology by Nathan H Lents (The Human Evolution Blog)

Nat Geo’s Trimates: Primate poaching, problems and protection by Kate On Conservation

We Can’t Save the Planet Without Women (The Nature Conservancy)

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