I heard you’re building a new campus in Rwanda – can you tell me more?

In 2018, Portia de Rossi gifted her animal-loving wife Ellen DeGeneres with the surprise of a lifetime: Ellen’s very own wildlife fund to provide support to organizations working on behalf of wildlife conservation!

Ellen has often said the person she’d most like to interview would be her childhood hero: Dian Fossey. As such, the first project of the Ellen DeGeneres Wildlife Fund is to support our dream to build a permanent, purpose-built home for our Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda…something that we’ve never had, even after 50 years on the ground!

This vision is not new – having a permanent site to call our own has been a goal of the organization throughout its history and many hard times, including the loss of several structures in the 1990s. Through it all, the Fossey Fund’s work has always endured, but our impermanent and dated physical structures have constrained us from doing even more.

The Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund – which will house Karisoke and all of its programs – will be a global example of socially and environmentally responsible design. We see it as a place that will accelerate real and sustainable outcomes for an endangered species and the communities who reside near them.  That is why the mission of the campus is to make gorillas an entry point for a lifetime of conservation activism.

You can read more about Ellen’s amazing gift here

The Fossey Fund has been in Rwanda for 50 years, and what you do works, so why do you need a new campus?

Rendering courtesy of MASS Design Group

The Fossey Fund is the world’s longest-running and largest organization dedicated entirely to the conservation of gorillas.  We have grown our team and our programs dramatically since Dian’s time, such that we now host thousands of people each year.  Not surprisingly, our ability to grow and sustain our critical conservation work has become limited by both our physical structure and its location.

The Fossey Fund’s Karisoke Research Center is currently based out of a rented facility lacking in adequate and appropriate space for operations. We don’t have enough office, classroom, laboratory or meeting space, or sufficient areas for public programs. In addition, our current building sits 30 kilometers away from Volcanoes National Park, where our daily gorilla protection and science work occurs.

Nestled adjacent to the park, our new campus will be the first permanent headquarters the Fossey Fund has ever known. The multi-acre, eco-friendly facility will not only house Karisoke and all of its programs, but will also be home to a new, interactive exhibit to educate local communities and tourists; classrooms to increase training the next generation of conservationists; flexible meeting spaces to facilitate conservation conversation; cutting-edge lab spaces for research; on-site residences for visiting students and scientists; and much more!

The campus also has an impact much beyond our direct activities.  It will support the Rwandan government’s priorities to enhance conservation and natural resource management and build a knowledge-based society. It will also be a significant investment in the local communities around Volcanoes National Park. We estimate that as part of the construction process 1,500 jobs will be created (with 40 percent of the workforce being female) and $2 million spent on local labor and trades.  In addition, we estimate that $2.5 million will be spent on local materials gathered from within 250 kilometers of the site.

What is the Karisoke Research Center anyway?

Karisoke is the name that Dian Fossey created in 1967, when she set up two tents in the forest in Rwanda, to begin her groundbreaking work. She named it after the two mountains nearby – Mt. Bisoke and Mt. Karisimbi. Over the years, Karisoke has been housed in many structures, including rudimentary cabins, small houses, and our current rented office building in city-center Musanze.

Today, Karisoke is also the term we often use to refer to all of our activities in Rwanda, not just our protection of gorillas. This includes our work to study the gorillas and biodiversity of the region, train the next generation of African conservationists, and help local communities thrive.  Karisoke is also the 130 people who make up the Karisoke team and the thousands of individuals we work with each year – students, partners, scientists, community members – to ensure a future for gorillas.

What is the difference between the Ellen Fund and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund?

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and the Ellen DeGeneres Wildlife Fund are two separate and distinct non-profit organizations, partnering for a very specific project.

The Ellen Fund was founded in 2018 as a way for Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi to turn their passion for protecting wildlife into direct action. Because of Ellen’s life-long admiration of Dian Fossey, the Fossey Fund was chosen as the first beneficiary of the Ellen Fund.

The Ellen Fund has provided a generous lead gift for us to be able to move forward on a dream 50+ years in the making: a permanent, purpose-built home for Karisoke and our extensive conservation work. So, the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is truly the result of decades of commitment and fortitude from thousands of caring conservationists all over the world who have enabled our work to exist for more than 50 years.

As a conservation organization, how does building a new campus fit into your commitment to the environment?

For construction of the new campus we have partnered with MASS Design Group, a unique, award-winning nonprofit firm based in Boston, USA, and Kigali, Rwanda. MASS Design has extensive experience in creating mission-aligned, purpose-built facilities throughout the world, including the new Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

MASS is designing our new campus using sustainable architecture, local resourcing, and environmentally sound practices to keep our footprint as minimal as possible, while also giving us the space we need to grow and sustain this critical work.

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 focus on locally sourced, sustainable materials and providing job opportunities for local communities. On average, their projects include a workforce that is 40 percent women with 10 percent in leadership roles.

When will construction begin, and when will the new campus open?

The land for our new facility was purchased in 2018, and design work is well underway!  The first ground-breaking event takes place on Feb. 12, 2019, with construction to follow later in the year. We expect to open in early 2021!

Will the new campus be open to the public? How can I visit?

Absolutely! Just like our current location, our new campus will also be open to the public! We hope that it will become the entry point for a lifetime of conservation activism for Rwandans and tourists alike.

Until the new campus opens, visitors can enjoy our current public exhibition at our office in Musanze. This unique, interactive exhibit not only includes detailed information about wild gorillas, but it also includes life-size gorilla skeletal models, as well as original artifacts from Dian’s cabin. To learn more about visiting, click here.

How can I get more involved?

We’ll continue releasing information on this transformative project as more opportunities arise to get involved. The best way to stay up-to-date on ALL that is happening at the Fossey Fund, including the campus project, is to visit our website frequently and make sure you’re on our email list.