In September 1967, Dian Fossey set up two small tents in the wilderness of the Virunga mountains in Rwanda, and began a pioneering study of endangered mountain gorillas, under the auspices of famed archeologist Dr. Louis Leakey.
Fossey named her two-tent facility “Karisoke,” after the nearby mountains Mt. Karisimbi and Mt. Bisoke. Now, nearly 50 years later, and some 30 years after her murder there, her work has led to one of the world’s most significant conservation success stories, and to hope for the future of her beloved gorillas.
Karisoke was originally founded as a center for scientific understanding of the gorillas, and now, five decades later, the majority of what is scientifically known about gorillas is actually based on studies conducted at Karisoke. The Fossey Fund’s long-term database constitutes one of the largest of its kind for any species. It is used to answer questions about gorilla biology and the best methods for conserving them, and by extension, other wild apes as well and even basic science. Data collected at Karisoke has contributed to more than 300 scientific publications on gorillas and the surrounding regions.
Today, the Karisoke Research Center is led by Rwandan Felix Ndagijimana, who has been with the Fossey Fund since 2004, starting as a research assistant.
Protection and study expands to Congo
As a direct result of this experience and success protecting mountain gorillas in Rwanda, the Fossey Fund now also protects and studies endangered Grauer’s gorillas, which are found only in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and whose numbers are plummeting. These gorillas have had almost no protection and much less is known about them. The Fossey Fund now provides daily monitoring for Grauer’s gorillas using four local tracker teams, with expansion underway. We also track biodiversity levels across a 700-square-kilometer forest, through the use of remote cameras.
In order to support these efforts for the long term, the Fossey Fund is also a pioneer in building the next-generation of conservationists in Africa, and working with local people in critical areas such as health, education and community development. The organization believes that when people thrive, gorillas and their critical forests habitats, will thrive too.
Long-term presence is the key
“One of the primary lessons the Fossey Fund has learned over the nearly 50 years since Dian Fossey founded the Karisoke Research Center, is that conservation can only be achieved through a long-term, on-the-ground presence,” says Dr. Tara Stoinski, Fossey Fund president and CEO/chief scientific officer. The Fossey Fund has been able to maintain this presence despite considerable challenges, such as civil wars, global economic instability, and limited resources. The mountain gorilla likely would be extinct without this concerted effort made on its behalf over the last 50 years.