“Dian Fossey thought gorillas would be extinct before the year 2000. Instead, they're the only non-human great ape on the planet that's increasing.” – Dr. Tara Stoinski, PhD primatologist and CEO of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.
No matter how many times I don my gloves and gators to trek toward the ultimate reward – peaceful time in the presence of our planet's mountain gorillas – I feel a sense of tremendous privilege and heightened anticipation. The fact that Volcanoes National Park is still here and that the very precious 1,063 mountain gorillas we have left, 600 of which call the Virunga Massif home, not only exist, but thrive, is a testament to Dian Fossey's legacy. Imagine what it must’ve been like in 1967 to pitch a tent nearly 10,000 feet up Mount Bisoke, alone in the dense jungle, often covered in pouring rain, to begin what is now one of the longest-running wildlife studies in the world. Thankfully, Fossey's legacy is the opposite of a solo study. It feels all the more meaningful that 56 years ago, one woman began this mission to save critically endangered mountain gorillas. Today, a dedicated group of more than 350 staff, led by Dr. Tara Stoinski, primatologist and CEO of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, continues her work.
On a recent trip to Rwanda, we went behind the scenes at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund Campus to experience what it takes to save a species that acts as eco-guardians of this part of the Virunga rainforest – the “lungs” of our planet.
Until 2022, the work of the Fossey Fund took place in a rented, limited lab, with samples sent to laboratories abroad. The building of the new Campus – with three state-of-the-art scientific laboratories, educational classrooms, student accommodations, the most extraordinary gorilla exhibit and a moving recreation of Fossey's original cabin – was 20-year dream. Those fortunate enough to be guided by senior advisor Veronica Vecellio or manager of guest services Kadiara King'ai, find that behind the scenes is a window into a bright future for conservation in Africa, one with significant female leadership. To see our vision statement “If African women rise, wildlife will thrive” happening in real time is of course truly thrilling.
The campus stores the largest collection of mountain gorilla skeletons, alongside analysing gorilla waste for elevated hormones such as cortisol and signs of other stressors. This data provides insight into the pressures these creatures face, namely habitat loss. The Rwandan government is finding a middle ground. Plans to expand Volcanoes National Park by 23% are intended to benefit everyone. Villagers living on the park's fringes will be relocated to newly “green” villages, and an estimated 17,000 jobs will be created in the process.
Meanwhile, the current model of sharing 10% of tourism revenue will continue. The collaborative approach taken by the Rwandan government is echoed by the Fossey Fund. As Dr. Stoinski said to us, “You can't address conservation without addressing the other larger issues facing our planet and the species we share it with – it's all interconnected.”
Within the campus, 40% of all research assistants are women, with four new female trackers recently inducted. This year alone saw 20 new studies published in scientific journals, with 50% of those studies led by Africans – this is an important statistic given the vast underrepresentation in the scientific realm. In Rwanda and the neighbouring DRC, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is leading literacy programs for women, providing scholarships for secondary, university and graduate student education, planting tens of thousands of trees to limit erosion, decrease reliance on rainforest wood and diversify local nutrition while improving food security. And to date, over 10,000 children have passed through the gorilla exhibit, a huge source of pride for Dr. Stoinski, who firmly believes that education comes first: “You cannot be what you cannot see. We need a well-educated and well-engaged cadre of people to take on the mantle of leading this work in the future.”
These words ring especially true when you experience the exhibit and get to know the different gorilla groups and their stories. One story that brings me to tears when I lead our guests each year on the Greatest Safari on Earth is the story of Fasha.
This female baby gorilla was struggling to cross a river after badly injuring her foot in a snare. Having recently lost her mother, Fasha’s wider family rallied and took care of her, with her half-sister in particular encouraging her toward the other side of the bank and wrapping Fasha in a warm triumphant hug when she eventually reached the other side. If we were to lose such a sentient, emotionally intelligent species to extinction, we would be losing a part of ourselves.
The passion and determination of the entire Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund team is an inspiration to us all. But you have to see the exhibit and understand the ongoing scientific research that is so essential to our fight against climate change and gorilla conservation to really digest its critical importance.
Rwanda is a country that stays with all of our guests long after they leave. For ROAR AFRICA, introducing our guests to the milky-eyed gaze of the mountain gorillas – an experience that changes your life and perspective forever – is hugely rewarding. Once you see these gentle, innocent creatures roaming free and playing in the rainforest, you feel a primal pull to do everything in your power to protect them. For this world to change, it’s going to take a shift in our innate spiritual architecture. This is the kind of experience that spurs that shift… at least, that’s what I believe. It’s why I work so tirelessly to encourage this profound human experience.
With that, I'll leave you with a heartfelt sentiment that Dr. Stoinski and I both share:
“To save gorillas, you have to uplift the people that live near them and make sure they have a vested interest and understand the value of the work we're doing – otherwise it's a futile effort.”