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Dian Fossey Would Be So Proud

Nicky was lucky enough to visit the inspiring Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund just five days after it was officially opened on 1 February 2022
Above: The Virunga mountains as seen from the Campus. Image curtesy of Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund

Sometimes it’s okay to show off a little so please forgive me (and be impressed) that my host at the Campus was Dr Tara Stoinski, President, CEO and Chief Scientific Officer for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. I must come clean and say this was only because she is a long-time friend of Praveen Moman, my long-time friend. I’m good at riding on coattails. Tara lives in Atlanta but is back and forth across the Atlantic numerous times a year when the world is not topsy turvy. The Campus was built during the pandemic and Tara managed the project via Zoom, WhatsApp, and carrier pigeon.
I was disappointed not to be shown around by Ellen but a very cheery video of Ellen greeting all the visitors welcomes you as you enter the centre. It sufficed. Ellen, and her wife Portia, enabled this dream project to become a reality through the support of The Ellen Fund, a non-profit that works to protect endangered animals. 

Ellen warmly welcomes visitors to the Campus via a video recording

The three one-story buildings that sweep across the campus are an architectural delight and honours the region’s handsome volcanic stone.  This is where students, scientists, tourists, conservation partners and community members gather, all sharing a single purpose of helping people and safeguarding these great apes (people first always – my mantra). The Mass Design Group, a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization whose mission is ‘to research, build, and advocate for architecture that promotes justice and human dignity’, designed and built the centre. A marriage made in heaven.

Dr Tara Stoinski, Praveen Moman and Nicky stand outside the Campus

Tara story-told her way through the Conservation Gallery urging us to have a go at every interactive exhibit. Try as I did, I could not imitate a gorilla laughing – epic fail each time but of course to the huge delight of Praveen who was far too dignified to even try. We learnt that gorillas are closer than close cuzzies as they share 98% of our DNA; their chest beat can be heard from over a kilometre away; they laugh when they play; they start their lives weighing a teensy 1.8kg but can reach 180kg in their prime, and that’s because they eat 25kg of leaves and such a day. And did you know that gorillas make a new nest every evening to sleep in?

Nicky and Tara have a giggle after trying one of the fun exhibits

The exhibits are magnificent (and I have to add as a proud Saffer all designed and made in Cape Town by the same team behind the Two Oceans Aquarium) and include stories about Fossey’s most beloved gorillas, the carved plaque from Digit’s grave, Dian’s pearls which she wore when she came down from the volcanoes, her little sheet-iron research home, and a tribute to the men and women who have devoted their lives to caring for Rwanda’s mountain gorillas.

Some of the fantastic exhibits at the Campus, including Dian Fossey's house
"Humans are gorillas' greatest threat, and their biggest hope"

I was blown away to hear Tara say there are over 400 000 gorillas that still roam the forests of Central Africa, with the vast majority of these being the Western Lowland Gorilla from Gabon and the Republic of Congo. A tiny population of Cross River Gorillas make their home in the deep forests along a river that forms the border between Nigeria and Cameroon. The largest subspecies, the Grauer’s Gorillas, or Eastern Lowland Gorillas, from the DRC are considered most at risk due to their rapid decline in population. And then we have the heroes of the Virungas and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, the Mountain Gorillas, made famous by Dian Fossey’s dedicated research and the book and movie, Gorillas in the Mist, that celebrated her life’s work and deep love for these great apes.

Dian Fossey's love for gorillas is legendary, especially for her beloved Digit who she is buried next to

The Campus is a short distance from the entrance to the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and ideally, trekkers should visit it before setting off in search of the mountain gorillas. Budget at least two hours as there is heaps to see. There is no entry fee per se but a $20 donation is most welcome. Good coffee and light meals are served at the Gorilla Café and the Azizi Life gift shop is by far the best I have seen in Rwanda and all the merchandise is community crafted.

Beautiful community crafted goods line the walls of the Azizi Life gift shop

“When you realise the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past
and concentrate on the preservation of the future.” - Dian Fossey

Filed under: East Africa Travel

Tagged with:

Angama Team , Gorilla Trekking , Mountain Gorillas , Uganda

About: Nicky Fitzgerald

After more than 30 years in hospitality, starting with a small hotel at the foot of Africa and followed by a further couple of Cape hotels, most notably The Bay, and sixty plus safari lodges across Africa and India, Nicky has served more meals, puffed more cushions, filled more beds, trained more staff and opened more properties than she cares to remember. Nicky retired as Angama's CEO in July of 2022 and remains an advisor and delightfully opinionated member of the Board.

Browse all articles by Nicky Fitzgerald Meet the angama team

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Join the Conversation (2 comments)

Comments (2):

Francis Bagbey

22 February 2022

Hi, Nicky. Thanks for this. Is there a company you would recommend to visit Volcanoes National Park to see the gorillas? Thank you. Francis

    Charlotte Ross Stewart

    23 February 2022

    Hello Francis, thank you for reaching out to us. We would be delighted to help plan your trip for you through Angama Safaris. You can either submit a form on the 'contact' page on our website or you can email our travel planners directly at [email protected] Please let us know if you have any other questions.

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