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The Trimates

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The Trimates,[1][2] sometimes called Leakey's Angels,[3] is a name given to three women — Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey,[4] and Birutė Galdikas — chosen by anthropologist Louis Leakey to study primates in their natural environments. They studied chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, respectively.


Louis Leakey's interest in primate ethology stemmed from his attempts to recreate the environment in which the primate, Proconsul, lived in the Rusinga Island region. He saw similarities between this environment and the habitat of the chimpanzees and gorillas. He had been trying to find observers since 1946. In 1956, he sent his secretary, Rosalie Osborn, to Mount Muhabura in Uganda to "help habituate" gorillas,[5] but she returned to England after four months. Leakey was considering taking the job himself when Jane Goodall providentially brought herself to his attention.

To fund Goodall's research at the Gombe Stream Preserve, Leakey created the Tigoni Primate Research Center, north of Nairobi, Kenya, in 1958. With donations from sources including the National Geographic Society and the Wilkie Foundation,[6] the Tigoni Research Center helped secure funding for all three of the women Leakey dubbed the "Trimates". After Kenya achieved independence the center became the National Primate Research Center. It later became the Institute of Primate Research of the National Museums of Kenya, located in Nairobi.

At the time of Leakey's death in 1972, Goodall and Dian Fossey had progressed significantly in their long-term field research in Africa, while Birutė Galdikas was just getting underway with her field studies in Indonesia. A fourth researcher, Toni Jackman, had been selected to study bonobos in Africa, but the necessary financing and permits had not yet been secured before Leakey's death.

Jane Goodall[edit]

Jane Goodall (2015)

Jane Goodall began her first field study of chimpanzee culture in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. Goodall had always been passionate about animals and Africa, which brought her to the farm of a friend in the Kenya highlands in 1957. From there, she obtained work as a secretary, but acting on her friend's advice she telephoned Louis Leakey with no other thought than to make an appointment to discuss animals. The call was far-reaching in its impact. Leakey was looking for a chimpanzee researcher but he kept the idea to himself for a time. Instead, he insisted Goodall could work for him as a secretary. After obtaining the approval of his co-researcher and wife, noted British paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey, Louis sent Goodall to Olduvai Gorge, where he confessed his plans. The funds had to be found first.

In 1958, Leakey sent Goodall to London to study primate behavior with Osman Hill and primate anatomy with John Napier. The funds were found in that year, and in 1960 Goodall went to Gombe with her mother Vanne Morris-Goodall. The presence of Vanne was necessary to satisfy the requirements of David Anstey, chief warden, who was concerned for their safety. He cancelled the permit briefly. After Goodall was sent to observe vervet monkeys, the permit was reinstated.[7]

Dian Fossey[edit]

Dian Fossey

In 1967, Dian Fossey began her extended study of mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda. She had lived a somewhat reclusive life as an occupational therapist working with disabled children in California. Earlier she had been interested in veterinary science. In 1963 she decided to seek adventure in Africa and took a trip there with borrowed money. Happening to visit Olduvai, she came to Leakey's attention by spraining her ankle, falling into the excavation, and vomiting on a giraffe fossil.

Fossey returned home to repay the money. In 1966, Leakey happened to be in Louisville lecturing. Fossey attended the lecture, spoke momentarily to Leakey, and to her surprise he remembered her and asked her to stay after the lecture. The next day after an hour's interview at Leakey's hotel, he hired her to observe gorillas, taking up where George Schaller had left off. On January 6, 1967, she arrived at the Virunga Mountains in a Land Rover with Alan Root and a small party and hiked into the mountains, where she set up camp. Root left. Fossey began to succeed in observation almost from the beginning. She seemed to have an empathy with the gorillas, and continued to both study them and defend them from local poachers until her murder in 1985.[citation needed]

Birutė Galdikas[edit]

Birutė Galdikas (2011)

Goodall and Fossey were well under way in their study programs in Africa when Birutė Galdikas attended a March 1969 lecture by Leakey at UCLA, where she was a student. She had already formed the intention of studying orangutans, and stayed after the lecture to solicit Leakey's help. In between his conversations with other fans, she managed to tentatively convince him to support her orangutan research. Leakey did wish to find an observer of orangutans and had asked Goodall to do it years before, but Goodall refused, as she was preoccupied by the chimpanzees.

Leakey interviewed Galdikas the next day at the home of Joan and Arnold Travis, Leakey's base in Southern California during his regular lecture tours on the West coast. Leakey accepted the application and over the next months set up an expedition with the necessary permissions. In 1971, she began field studies of orangutans in the jungles of Borneo.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Galdikas, Birute Mary (January 6, 2007). "The Vanishing Man of the Forest". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-12-08.
  2. ^ Morell, V (April 16, 1993). "Called "'Trimates,' Three Bold Women Shaped Their Field". Science. 260 (5106): 420–425. Bibcode:1993Sci...260..420M. doi:10.1126/science.260.5106.420. PMID 17838264. S2CID 5060859.
  3. ^ Freeman, Simon, "Inside Story: Money Business in Borneo; Birute Galdikas was seen as conservationist saint in the mould of crusaders like Dian Fossey. Now her jungle idyll is falling apart." The Guardian, January 4, 1994
  4. ^ Dian Fossey "soon became one of the so-called Leakey's Angels, sponsored by" Louis Leakey "to do long-term research in Africa," according to "The Martyrdom of Dian Fossey," LIFE The Most Notorious Crimes in World History (Des Moines: LIFE Books, 2013), 99.
  5. ^ Morell, Virginia, Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings. New York : Simon & Schuster, 1995. Morell's term, Chapter 17. She, however, uses Leakey's customary term.
  6. ^ Peterson, Dale, Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man. New York : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008, p. 154.
  7. ^ Morell, Virginia, Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings. New York : Simon & Schuster, 1995. Chapter 17. On a personal note, Louis and Vanne became involved at some level, circa 1961, in various collaborations, which later involved the writing of his memoirs. The relationship was described as 'intimate' by at least one biographer, though there are several possible meanings for the term. The relationship may have effectively finished his marriage to Mary. After Louis stayed at Vanne's flat in London, the rumor circulated that Louis was Jane's father, which was untrue. On that account Richard hated Jane and treated her rudely, feelings and behavior deeply.
  8. ^ Morell, Virginia, Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings. New York : Simon & Schuster, 1995. Chapter 24, "Dearest Dian."