A New Research Center in Rwanda Is Giving Gorilla Conservation Efforts Fresh Hope

The new Ellen DeGeneres Campus will allow the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund to continue to protect mountain gorillas, accelerate scientific research, and train the next generation of conservationists.

A New Research Center in Rwanda Is Giving Gorilla Conservation Efforts Fresh Hope

An outdoor seating area at the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Musanze, Rwanda.

Courtesy of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund

When conservationist Dian Fossey set up two small tents in the wilds of Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains in 1967, fewer than 500 mountain gorillas existed in the wild, and their numbers were falling rapidly due to poaching and habitat loss.

Those tents were the start of a now 55-year-old internationally renowned research mission known as the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund —one of the world’s longest-running conservation organizations—that has seen the gorilla population rebound to more than 1,000.

While the work has never stopped—not even after Fossey’s untimely death in 1985—the group never really had a proper home. The team moved from the forest camp to Musanze following the Rwandan Genocide and for the past two decades, the DFGF worked out of cramped, rented facilities more than 20 miles away from the gorillas it served. Even though its work had made the gorillas one of the all too rare conservation success stories, it knew it needed some assistance to grow further.

Now, thanks to the opening of a new center for tourism, science, and education, it will be able to.

Last month, the Fossey Fund officially opened its new Ellen DeGeneres Campus near the entrance to Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, one of the four national parks in East Africa with mountain gorilla populations and the only one in Rwanda. The $15 million, 12-acre campus provides Fossey Fund with the space and tools to continue to protect the critically endangered mountain gorilla population, as well as accelerate its scientific research and train the next generation of conservationists.

“This campus couldn’t have come at a more critical time,” Dr. Tara Stoinski, president and CEO of the Fossey Fund, said during the opening ceremony on June 7. “We’re in the midst of the sixth mass extinction of biodiversity on the planet, and all the data is telling us how important conservation activities are. This campus serves as a training ground, not just for Rwanda but internationally. A place where we can bring career scientists together to think about what are the solutions for conservation and climate change.”

The campus includes three main buildings—the Cindy Broder Conservation Gallery, the Rob and Melani Walton Education Center, and the Sandy and Harold Price Research Center—as well as housing for 30 visiting students and researchers.

The project was first announced in 2018 on The Ellen DeGeneres Show by Portia De Rossi, DeGeneres’s wife, who pledged to pay for its construction as a 61st birthday present to the talk show host. De Rossi explained that when she first met DeGeneres, she asked who she admired most. Though she’d interviewed myriad influential people on her show, DeGeneres said Dian Fossey, who she first saw on the cover of National Geographic as a child and never met, had been her lifelong hero.

“I felt it was the right gift,” De Rossi said at the opening ceremony in Rwanda. “I felt it was important to give her a gift that connected her past to her future. I knew that I wanted to help create a legacy for Ellen beyond entertainment.”

Already, the new campus has seen thousands of Rwandan visitors, including more than 2,000 Rwandan students. Hosting guests was something the Fossey Fund couldn’t do much of in the old facilities.

“To have so many local communities on-site, to see the inspirational work happening in their backyard, by people of their country has been amazing,” Dr. Stoinski said. “These young people can come and see how important these forests are and see role models that they might want to be someday. They are part of the generation that will help us save the planet.”

Advancing research and training scientists

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A silverback gorilla in Volcanoes National Park

Photo by Bailey Berg

Each morning, Fossey Fund trackers set out into the forest, looking for the 10 habituated gorilla families (descendants of those Dian Fossey first studied) within Volcanoes National Park. It’s part of their daily protection protocols—their presence helps deter poaching. But in doing so, they also help collect important scientific data. They make daily written observations about each family member’s appearance, behavior, and health, as well as note if there’s been a significant event, like a birth, death, group transfer, or if the group leader has changed.

Having studied the animals for more than 50 years, researchers have a decent understanding of the animals’ biology—how long they live, how many babies they can have, and how long the dominant male is in charge. However, the new research center will help accelerate their knowledge in areas like genetics and physiology and will give them more opportunities to share their findings with other scientists and researchers, on campus or virtually.

Before the opening of the Ellen DeGeneres Campus, the Fossey Fund scientists worked in a kitchen that doubled as their laboratory. It was so small that only two people could stand inside, making it challenging to train students. Now they have a state-of-the-art facility, with multiple scientific labs, a computer lab, library, classroom, and conference spaces.

While various studies will be happening concurrently within the research center, one that’s already started (and that requires getting samples from the trackers) is fecal testing. The waste is a gold mine of information, providing researchers with insights into gorilla society. It can help them count the population, tell them whether the animals are stressed, determine if there are changes in food security, and indicate how they’re being affected by climate change.

Previously, they had to send the samples to the Unitd States, which took weeks, if not months, to get the results back. Being able to do it themselves, Dr. Stoinkski said, is changing not only how they do science but also how they train scientists.

One of the missions of the Fossey Fund is to train future leaders in conservation—particularly young Africans. “There is a lot of inequity when it comes to conservation science in Africa, and that’s something we’re committed to addressing,” Dr. Stoinski said.

“This campus is important for gorillas, but it’s really important for the people of Rwanda to continue this work,” DeGeneres said during the dedication ceremony. “It’s so important for these young students to come here and see this.”

Each year, they’ll work with more than 400 students from universities in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo to teach them about field research, scientific methods, and animal conservation. Beyond studying the great apes, they’ll look at the entire biome. They study amphibians because they respond rapidly to environmental changes, and they study birds, which help disperse seeds that help with the gorillas’ food supply.

After graduation, some will continue to work at the Fossey Fund, while others will look for similar work elsewhere. What they’ll learn here is relevant to gorillas as well as to any endangered or at-risk species—the ripple effect of what is learned here could be felt worldwide.

Experiencing the Ellen DeGeneres Campus

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DeGeneres and de Rossi watching a movie in the 360-degree theater.

Courtesy of Gabriel Nyirijuru/MASS Media

Though the official dedication ceremony was in June, the public has been welcome to come in and explore the museum gallery since February. The exhibits look at the history, science, and conservation of the mountain gorilla from Dian’s time to today. It shares everything from information about what the primates eat to family dynamics to threats they face. There’s also an interactive virtual reality experience, a 360-degree theater (donated by Leonardo DiCaprio), and an audio exhibit that teaches visitors to talk like a gorilla through guttural grunts and high-pitched barks. And there’s information on Dian Fossey displayed prominently throughout the facility, including in a replica of her old cabin that is filled with her personal artifacts and photos, hand-drawn maps of where she’d had gorilla encounters, and descriptive notes on the animals that would later become part of her memoir, Gorillas in the Mist.

The new space also allows the center to partner with other organizations, like safari operator Go2Africa, to create more immersive experiences aimed at putting guests’ visits into greater context, like getting a behind-the-scenes tour of the facilities, going for a gorilla trek with a researcher, getting a private master class on gorilla conservation, and picking the brains of Fossey Fund staff during a private cocktail hour. (All four experiences can be booked through Go2Africa, and all of the funds are donated to the Fossey Fund to support children’s conservation education outreach programs.)

“If we can get a traveler to take a gorilla trek, but also expose them to the conservation work that allows for those experiences, we can create activists that can pay it forward for the next generation of travelers,” explains Maija de Rijk-Uys, managing director of Go2Africa. “Educating the traveler is equally as important as educating the communities.”

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Inside the Rob and Melani Walton Education Center on the Ellen DeGeneres Campus

Courtesy of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund

The campus was purpose-built by Boston-based MASS Design Group and is meant to represent a dedication to ecological preservation.

From above, the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund seemlessly blends into the surrounding landscape. Each of the three buildings is made from hand-cut, locally sourced volcanic rock and is crowned with a plantlife-topped roof that collects rainwater, which can be reused when treated naturally.

“The space is so beautiful, and it’s helped elevate the work that we do,” Dr. Stoinski said, adding that the design of the campus has helped with community buy-in. “People come here, and they say, ‘This looks important. What is happening here must be important.’ And we all know in this day and age that conservation is critically important.”

How to visit the Ellen DeGeneres Campus

The campus is open every day (except April 7, in recognition of Genocide Remembrance Day), from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., though last entry is at 4 p.m. No advanced reservations are needed to visit the campus and donations are accepted in lieu of an entrance fee.

The Ellen DeGeneres Campus is next to the entrance of Volcanoes National Park in a small village called Musanze. It’s roughly a 2.5-hour drive from Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city. If you only plan to visit the Ellen DeGeneres Campus, it could be done on a day trip, though if you plan to do it in conjunction with a gorilla trek, it’s a good idea to plan to spend a few nights in the area, considering treks generally set out at 7 a.m. and may not get back until late in the afternoon. Volcanoes Safari’s Virunga Lodge, Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, and Bisate Lodge are some of the popular lodges nearby.

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Bailey Berg is the associate travel news editor at AFAR, where she covers breaking news, trends, tips, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. When not interviewing sources or writing articles, she can be found exploring art galleries, visiting craft breweries, hiking with her dogs, and planning her next adventure (at present, she’s been to 75+ countries and hopes to spend time in every one someday).
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