The "Trimates": How Three Women Helped Save Endangered Primates

Updated: May 1, 2020

The year is 1960, and a 26-year-old Jane Goodall has just set foot in what is now Tanzania. Her mission is not simply to study chimpanzees; she is about to embark on a groundbreaking, lifelong expedition of understanding humankind's closest living relatives. In the academic and male-dominated field of primatology, Goodall began the unheard of approach of living alongside chimpanzees in their habitat in order to observe their natural behavior.

Less than a decade later, two other women dove into primatology as well, picking up Goodall's immersive, empathetic, and hands-on approach to primate research: Dian Fossey, who studied mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and Biruté Galdikas, who journeyed to Southeast Asia to study orangutans.

From left to right: Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, Biruté Galdikas. Picture courtesy of The Jane Goodall Institute, no copyright infringement intended.

Together, the three researchers have been dubbed "The Trimates," as they each focused their research on a particular primate in the great ape family. And together, their research has revolutionized our understanding of great apes, unveiled their complex social relationships, and spearheaded conservation efforts in the face of endangerment and habitat loss.

A Novel Approach to Research

At the time of the Trimates' research, primatologists seldom saw their actual research subjects outside of captivity. In Fossey's case, mountain gorillas' main contact with humans had been through poaching, so establishing a bond and trust with the creatures took time and determination. But through the Trimates' ability to live alongside and observe the great apes for extended periods, they made groundbreaking discoveries about their research subjects.

Goodall discovered the marked similarities between human and chimpanzee behavior. Her discovery that chimps use tools was considered one of her most important observations. However, she also observed behaviors representative of their capacity for human-like affection such as hugging, kissing, and tickling. She saw their darker side as well, observing aggressively dominant females killing younger ones. Her memoir also documents the "Gombe Chimpanzee War," a sustained conflict between two chimpanzee troops. But all of these behaviors helped unveil just how closely chimpanzee social structures mirror our own.

Life for Dian Fossey, in the jungles of the Congo and Rwanda, was markedly different than Goodall's life in what is now Tanzania. Fossey delved into her research in these locations during times of conflict and unrest. Overtime, as she learned just how intense the problem of poaching was in these areas, she focused her attention towards the immediate protection of the gorillas and animals of the jungle. Her "Digit Fund," named for her favorite gorilla who was killed by poachers, became the basis for the modern-day Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund which helps protect these remarkable creatures.

Starting her research the latest of the three, Galdikas similarly opened a window into the then-mysterious lives of orangutans. Galdikas lived and traversed through thick, swampy areas to bring attention to orangutans of the rainforest. She provided insights into orangutan social structures, diet, and birth intervals. As her research took further root, she turned her attention toward conservation of the creatures, specifically on conserving their rainforest habitat which was rapidly shrinking, and the article she wrote for National Geographic gave orangutans international attention for the very first time.

Lives and Legacies

All three women continue to serve as inspirations and pioneers in the field of primatology. All three have written books documenting their experiences and findings, and Goodall and Galdikas continue to speak on conservation to this day. At the age of 53, Fossey's career was tragically cut short when she was brutally murdered at her cabin in Rwanda. Although the crime was never solved, it is likely she was killed by poachers due to her aggressive opposition to the practice. At Dancing Zebra Safari, we often send gorilla trekkers to visit her remarkable Karisoke Research Center that still operates today.

Without the Trimates, we may not have the same level of understanding and awareness of these creatures. These women's conservation efforts and research have not only allowed us new insights, but have given the creatures the space to thrive. At Dancing Zebra Safari, we are inspired by stories like these, stories in which ordinary people made an extraordinary impact. The Trimates help us every day to remember that the animal kingdom is not so different from our own. Even in the face of environmental degradation and habitat loss, let us remember like Jane Goodall that "it is not too late to turn things around, if we all do our part" (Goodall, 2018).

If you are interested in making a donation to continue the conservation efforts of these remarkable women, you may do so at these websites:

The Jane Goodall Institute

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund

The Orangutan Foundation

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