What is the new Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund?

The campus will be a permanent, multi-acre, purpose-built facility near Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. It will also serve as the new home of the 50-year-old Karisoke Research Center, which was founded by Dian Fossey and is the hub of the Fossey Fund’s protection, research, training and community outreach programs in Rwanda. The campus will include traditional and living laboratories; classrooms for training and public education; meeting spaces; a library and computer lab; an interactive public exhibit; and housing for visiting researchers and students.

Is support still needed for the new campus and for ongoing program operations?

Absolutely. As a non-profit, the Fossey Fund depends on our supporters to help us save gorillas, and we definitely need everyone’s help to complete the campus as well as to continue our daily operations.

The lead gift from the Ellen DeGeneres Wildlife Fund enabled the Fossey Fund to initiate this $10 million new campus project. The completion of the building will rely on the generosity of many donors at all levels of support. At the same time, donations for “bricks and mortar” are restricted in nature, which means that the organization still requires faithful donations to keep its programs going during construction.

The development of the new campus has been a dream for more than a decade.  And now that the process is underway, we are especially excited about how this campaign will expand our work.  We anticipate that the new campus will have a multiplying impact on our operational costs, enhancing each aspect of our work: daily protection, scientific research, educating conservationists, and helping communities.  We are fortunate to have a community of donors who have helped underwrite our core programming in Congo and Rwanda, and we will remain dependent on this support – your support – for years to come.

How will the Ellen DeGeneres Campus make a difference?

We’ll be able to expand our science, research and conservation activities; enhance our educational and community programs; and engage people from Rwanda and the world to join the effort on behalf of wild gorillas. In our current rented facilities, we’re limited in the amount of staff we can hold, the type of laboratory analysis we can do, our ability to engage tourists and donors, and our ability to act as a regional hub for conservation activities.

The campus will also support the Rwandan government’s strategic priorities, serving as an important hub for the newly established Center for Excellence in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management.

Overall, we expect the new campus to be a regional – even worldwide – centerpiece for conservation activities, education and science.

Why build this campus, instead of land to expand the gorillas habitat?

The Rwanda government manages the national park where the gorillas live, and is exploring expansion opportunities.  We will support these activities of the government through our continued protection activities as well as collecting critical data on the effects of the park expansion on the gorillas and larger biodiversity.

Who is designing and building the new campus?
We are partnering with the MASS Design Group, a unique, award-winning nonprofit firm based in Boston and Kigali, Rwanda. MASS Design has extensive experience creating mission-aligned, purpose-built facilities in Rwanda and throughout the world, including community hospitals in Rwanda and the new Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Through its many projects in Rwanda, MASS Design has helped educate and build a team of experienced local architects, designers, engineers and construction personnel. They also focus on locally sourced, sustainable materials and a workforce that includes at least 40 percent women.

Will Ellen and Portia play a role in the design of the center?

Ellen is an architecture buff, and we hope she’ll work closely with us on the design. Ellen and Portia have now visited the gorillas in Rwanda and have seen the land that has been purchased to build the new campus.

When will construction begin, and when do you expect it to open?

The timeline depends on fundraising efforts for the remainder of the project. We expect construction to begin in 2019 and hope to open the campus in 2020. 

Will the public be allowed to visit the Ellen DeGeneres Campus?

Absolutely! The center will have an important public education component, and we hope it will become a destination for Rwandans and tourists to learn about the work we do.

But visitors don’t have to wait for the new campus. Our current office in Ruhengeri includes a public exhibition that’s open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It includes the history of the Fossey Fund, information on current research and protection practices, Dian Fossey artifacts, and more. More information: https://gorillafund.org/get-involved/gorilla-expeditions/

Will this campus have an impact on the environment there?

MASS Design Group is designing the campus using sustainable architecture, local resourcing, and environmentally responsible practices to keep any impact minimal. They have worked extensively in Rwanda over the past 10 years and have considerable experience in what is call lo-fab (locally fabricated) building.

Do you expect this campus to bring more tourists to Rwanda and, specifically, Karisoke?

Tourism is a complex topic. It brings knowledge about, and support for, efforts to save gorillas and other animals. Yet great care must be taken to avoid causing any stress to this already vulnerable ecosystem.

That’s why the Rwandan government regulates tourism very closely, and only a limited number of permits are available each day for visitors to trek to see the gorillas.

Tourism is an important source of revenue for Rwanda. It pays for the protection not only of Volcanoes National Park but also the nation’s three other national parks. In addition, 10 percent of tourism money is shared to local communities, to improve the lives of those living near the parks. Thus, tourism is a very key component of conservation in Rwanda.

In terms of Karisoke, we welcome more visitors to come learn about and support our mission. We are 100 percent funded through donations – none of the money generated through tourism comes to us – and so the more people know about and support our work, the more we can do.

For these reasons, we hope our campus will raise the profile of Rwanda as a tourism destination and that tourists visit us at Karisoke. People who come to see the wild beauty of Rwanda, whether they obtain a permit to visit gorillas or not, will learn about our work to protect gorillas, and what Rwanda is doing to conserve its biodiversity to protect all species.

What do Fossey Fund staff members do every day?

Our employees work on aspects of the four pillars of our mission to save gorillas, as outlined in the first question above. Most of the 160 employees in Africa (115 in Rwanda, 45 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) spend their days in the thick forest, focused on protection and science.

They conduct patrols to protect gorillas from snares set by poachers, and they collect critical data on the gorillas and surrounding biodiversity.  These data are the key to strong, strategic decision-making about conservation issues, from what’s best for the animals to the effect on local communities.

Thanks to years of hard work and dedication by our employees and scientists from around the world, Karisoke remains the world’s centerpiece for gorilla research and conservation. More than 300 scientific publications have resulted from research at Karisoke, and our database is among the largest for any wild animal. In addition to the direct work with the gorillas and surrounding biodiversity, our teams are involved in education and community programs that reach tens of thousands of people in the region each year.

In our Atlanta, Georgia, office a team of nine dedicated professionals conducts all of our fundraising and communications operations. Our financial staff member and CEO operate out of the Atlanta office, as well. 

What types of gorillas do you work with?

The Fossey Fund works with the two subspecies of eastern gorillas: the mountain gorilla in Rwanda and the Grauer’s gorilla in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.

How many mountain gorillas are left?

The mountain gorilla population is critically small. With only about 1,000 individuals remaining, they’re one of the most endangered animals on earth. Threats to their survival include their small population size, disease, poaching, and human encroachment on their habitat.

In Rwanda, where about 220 of the remaining gorillas live, they’re limited to a small island of forest surrounded by people. The human population density around the gorillas’ habitat is among the highest in Africa.

Impoverished local populations still depend on the forest for some resources, such as water, wood and food, which puts pressure on the small remaining habitat.

Yet there is cause for hope. Today, mountain gorillas are the only wild ape whose numbers are rising.

How many Grauer’s gorillas are left?

Grauer’s gorillas are on the brink of extinction, with just 3,800 remaining. They have suffered a catastrophic 77 percent population decline over the past 20 years because of illegal hunting and civil unrest. Mines for minerals used in small electronics, like cell phones, have been set up in remote forests, and gorillas and other wildlife are killed to feed mining staff.

In 2016, the Fossey Fund’s staff and data played a key role in a reassessment that helped get Grauer’s gorillas downlisted from “endangered” to “critically endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This listing draws attention to the threats this population faces, and increases efforts to protect them. 

Who are your partners in Rwanda?

We have a direct partnership with the Rwandan government, which oversees all conservation activities within the country, as well as with other non-governmental conservation organizations. The campus will support the Rwandan government’s strategic conservation priorities for Volcanoes National Park, as well as serve as an important hub for the government’s newly established Center for Excellence in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management.

How is your record on spending donations?

We are dedicated to spending every dollar we receive wisely, because doing so best serves our conservation mission. As a result, the Fossey Fund has been awarded the highest rating from Charity Navigator, the largest non-profit independent charity evaluator.

How did Dian Fossey begin working with gorillas?

Fossey, who was drawn to gorillas during her first trip to Africa in 1963, became determined to study the habits of these amazing primates. In 1967, she set up camp in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda.

Fossey named the camp Karisoke, after nearby Mt. Karisimbi and Mt. Bisoke, and immediately began studying several dozen gorillas, standing alone in her determination to protect them.

In addition to Karisoke, Fossey founded the Digit Fund, which is today the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, carrying on and expanding her legacy.