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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
“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
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