Poppy with Dian Fossey, late 1970s. Photo by Ian Redmond/Fossey Fund

On April Fools' Day in 1976, primatologist Dian Fossey and her research team – embedded in the dense jungles of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park – recorded the birth of a mountain gorilla. They named her Poppy and, according to Fossey’s journals, the newborn was “winsome and appealing”. At the time, Fossey could not have predicted that tiny Poppy would go on to live into her forties providing researchers with a wealth of vital knowledge about the species.

Now, 43 years later, Poppy is presumed dead. Last seen by trackers in the Virunga mountains in August last year, the famed primate was the last living mountain gorilla made famous by "Gorillas in the Mist" – Fossey’s written account of Rwanda’s threatened primate population.

Poppy was gifted with a strong genetic legacy. She hailed from one of the area’s “royal families” according to a statement from the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund released earlier this week. Her mother, Effie, was a formidable matriarch whose family members are now scattered throughout Volcanoes National Park, while some of her other relatives include famous silverbacks, Cantsbee and Isabukuru. Poppy’s sister, Maggie, was a one of actress Sigourney Weaver’s favourites while filming the Academy Award-winning film-adaptation of Fossey's book.

“Being able to observe Poppy over so many stages of life gave researchers a wealth of knowledge,” says Dr. Tara Stoinski, Fossey Fund President and CEO/Chief Scientific Officer. “She taught us so much about the rich social and reproductive lives of female gorillas, their dominance structure, and of course, their personalities.”

After spending almost ten years with the original family she has born into, Poppy transferred to the Susa group in November 1985, just a few weeks before Fossey was killed. As a young gorilla, Poppy spent three decades with the group where she quickly rose to dominance and raised many offspring. In 2015, she surprised trackers when she joined a newly formed group and teamed up with a young silverback named Iyambere. At 41, Poppy become the oldest mountain gorilla on record to give birth.

Young Poppy (left) with mother Effie, late 1970s. Image © Fossey Fund

“Poppy broke the mold for what we know about mountain gorilla females – transferring at an older age, joining a very young and inexperienced male, having a baby so late in life,” says Veronica Vecellio, Fossey Fund gorilla programme senior advisor. “It is so wonderful that we know about her infancy from Dian Fossey’s journals. She was one of Fossey’s favorites, and we all felt such privilege to know her and observe her in her final years. Surely, this means we will remember her forever.”

The team from the Fossey Fund continue to work tirelessly to ensure the future survival of these endangered primates. When Fossey first established a camp within Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park in 1967 she found a species in trouble: just 240 gorillas roamed the dense jungle. As of June 2016, estimates indicate that the population has grown to 604 in the five decades since Fossey first began her fight for the species. 

In Poppy’s memory, the fund is offering the public a chance to "adopt" Mahane (Poppy's sister) and her baby, to help researchers continue the legacy of Dian’s “little darling.”

Poppy with her last infant, in 2018. Image © Fossey Fund

Top header image: Rod Waddington/Flickr