September 24, 2017, marks 50 years since pioneering scientist Dian Fossey established the Karisoke Research Center in the remote Rwandan forests to study the little-known mountain gorillas. Her legendary work revolutionized the world’s understanding of gorillas and changed the course of history for a species that many thought would be driven to extinction before the year 2000. It also took her life, as she was killed in her remote cabin in the Virunga mountains in 1985.
Today, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund operates the Karisoke Research Center and is a leader in saving critically endangered gorillas in Africa, with 160 field staff engaged in daily gorilla protection, scientific study, educational initiatives, and support to improve lives of local human communities.
“If it were not for Dian Fossey, mountain gorillas would likely be extinct today. She was their greatest champion, and started what is now the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund to pay for anti-poaching patrols at a time when the gorillas were being decimated by poachers,” says Dr. Tara Stoinski, who leads the Fossey Fund today as president and CEO/chief scientific officer.
“Many more people have since dedicated their lives to the conservation of mountain gorillas but Dian Fossey laid the critical groundwork on which this success is based,” Dr. Stoinski adds.
What 50 years of saving gorillas includes:
- Providing daily protection of gorillas with more than 100 trackers and anti-poaching team members, working closely with Rwandan park authorities. Dubbed “extreme conservation,” this approach has been scientifically shown to underlie the increase in the mountain gorilla population.
- Operating the world’s longest-running gorilla research site, which has produced more than 300 scientific publications. Studies at Karisoke have transformed the world’s understanding about gorillas and provided critical information for developing conservation strategies.
- Improving the quality of life for communities who live near gorilla habitat, through addressing critical needs such as health care, water access and food security.
- Training the next generation of Africa conservationists and scientists by offering courses, field training, internships and funding for advanced degrees.
Although the population of mountain gorillas is growing, the numbers are critically small — only 880 individuals remain, making them among the most-endangered mammals on the planet — and so the Fossey Fund’s work to protect this species from poachers and loss of their habitat due to deforestation continues. “We want to ensure gorillas continue to grow and thrive in the wild for the next 50 years and beyond,” says Dr. Stoinski.
The Fossey Fund is also now applying this successful model to help save nearby Grauer’s gorillas in Congo, ranked as one of the 25 most-endangered primates. They have received little protection and their population has been decimated by recent decades of civil unrest, hunting, poaching and loss of habitat.
Special anniversary events:
*In honor of this 50th anniversary, a consortium of zoos in the United States have designated Sept. 24 as the first “World Gorilla Day,” and are raising money and awareness to support wild gorilla conservation.
*National Geographic magazine published a feature on Dian Fossey and the legacy of her work in its September edition. A three-part television series on her life will air in December on National Geographic.
*In addition, the University of Florida has opened a special exhibit of photographs by Bob Campbell, who photographed Fossey’s work for National Geographic. http://ufdc.ufl.edu/wildlife.