The story of Rwanda’s Mountain Gorillas is incomplete without mention of the name Dian Fossey. The two are tightly intertwined.
Fossey (or ‘the gorilla lady’, as she came to be known) was an American Primatologist and gorilla conservationist who undertook a daring study of gorilla populations in the Volcanoes National Park in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Her 18-year research helped demystify the gorilla, hitherto feared as a savage man-eater. Fossey’s active stand to save the gorillas from poaching led her to fight for the gorillas not only via the media, but also by physically destroying poachers’ dogs and snares.
In January 1970, Fossey graced the cover page of the first issue of the National Geographic magazine, and in a 20-page article, gave her first detailed account of her research among the gorillas.
Her work attracted huge international attention, and that won her a few friends but perhaps enemies too.
In 1985, she was found lying dead in her house in the Volcanoes National Park, murdered by unknown assailants.
But before that, in 1967, Fossey had founded the Karisoke Research Center to study the endangered primates. It was a remote rainforest camp perched between Mount Karisimbi and Mount Bisoke. In tribute to its unique location, she named the center Karisoke.
She also created the “Digit Fund,” to raise funds for protection of the gorillas, which was re-named the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund following her death. Today, the fund operates daily gorilla protection programs as well as extensive science, education and community initiatives in the country.
Fossey’s legacy continues through the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, an international gorilla conservation organization and the Karisoke Research Center, based in Musanze town.
Celebrating a milestone
This year marks 50 years since the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund was established.
As part of its Golden Jubilee celebrations, the organization’s Board of Trustees visited Rwanda between February 19 and 25.
It was a week of presentations, forest treks, receptions, and meetings which provided an opportunity for the Dian Fossey Fund staff and board to celebrate this milestone with Rwandan officials, park authorities and other partner conservation organizations based in Rwanda.
The visit kicked off with meetings in Kigali among Fossey board executive committee members and officials from the Rwanda Development Board.
Board members, Fossey Fund CEO & President/Chief Scientist Dr. Tara Stoinski, and Felix Ndagijimana, Director of the Fossey Fund’s Rwanda programs and Karisoke Research Center met with Belise Kariza, RDB’s Chief Tourism Officer, and Eugene Mutangana, Head of Conservation Department, to discuss opportunities to celebrate the Fossey Fund’s 50th anniversary, especially with the annual Conversation on Conservation and Kwita Izina taking place in September, around the time of the actual Karisoke anniversary (September 24).
Board members then traveled to the Karisoke Research Center headquarters in Musanze town, where they spent a whole day immersed in presentations by some of the Fossey Fund’s115 staff. Presentations focused on the four pillars of the fund’s work—gorilla protection, scientific research on gorillas and biodiversity, training future conservationists, and support of local communities living near the Volcanoes National Park.
Also present was the director of the fund’s programs in the DRC, who made a presentation to update the board on efforts to protect critically endangered Grauer’s gorillas, which are rapidly declining as a result of poaching but have received far less attention than the mountain gorillas of Rwanda.
“The board is in awe of the depth and diversity of the projects and the expertise and dedication of the staff,” observed new board member, David Singer.
After the presentations, a reception was held at the local house of wildlife celebrity Jack Hanna. Board members met with many of the organization’s key partners in the region, including Volcanoes National Park leadership, and local government, school and conservation partners.
The evening included speeches by the Chief Warden of Volcanoes National Park, Prosper Uwingeli; director of Karisoke Research Center, Felix Ndagijimana; Director of the San Diego Zoo and Chairman of the Fossey Fund Board of Trustees, Dwight Scott; and a representative from Musanze district’s mayor’s office.
Visiting gorillas, community projects, and trackers facility
During the next two days, board members trekked to see both gorillas and golden monkeys and visited a number of the community projects supported by the Fossey Fund in Bisate village, where the fund has worked for 15 years. They visited Bisate primary school, where the fund has built classrooms and provides annual conservation education programs and school supplies to some 1,700 children.
Also visited was the new Bisate Learning Center, which provides a library and computer laboratory for both the primary and secondary schools as well as the local community; and the health clinic, where the Fossey Fund recently helped build a new maternity ward.
Perhaps the highlight of the week for many came next – a visit to the Fossey Fund gorilla trackers’ house to meet with the 85 individuals who make up the Fossey Fund’s field teams and work in gorilla protection, biodiversity monitoring, and anti-poaching patrols.
Teams successively provided updates on their work, followed by speeches honoring the work of the trackers given by Dr. Stoinski, Felix Ndagijimana, and the Chairman of the Board. The event ended with the distribution of field gear and traditional Rwandan drumming and dancing.
Celebrations, remembrances, progress
The week concluded with two specially important and poignant events: a reception by the US Ambassador to Rwanda, Erica J. Barks-Ruggles, and a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
Ambassador Barks-Ruggles later hosted a reception at her residence in Kigali for Fossey Fund board, Rwandan and U.S. officials, business leaders, and other organizations working in Rwanda, all in celebration of the success of conservation in the country.
Ms. Barks-Ruggles has been noted for her support of conservation and her love of the mountain gorillas, which she has now visited eight times – a record among U.S. ambassadors accredited to Rwanda.
During an official visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, board members and staff honored those who died during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi by placing flowers on the graves. The board also made a donation to the Center to support its educational outreach programs to build a peaceful and prosperous future.
The meeting had a huge impact on the Fossey Fund staff and board in many ways.
“It is so inspiring for us to have our board here in Rwanda to experience the work we do first-hand and meet with our partners and staff”, said President and CEO Dr. Tara Stoinski. “Each and every board member has told me how impactful their time in Rwanda has been and how impressed they are with the conservation focus of the country”.
“The Karisoke staff are very grateful to have had the Fossey Fund board meet in Rwanda,” said Felix Ndagijimana.
“In addition to allowing all of our staff to interact with them, the visit is an important sign of their commitment to our work and to gorilla conservation in Rwanda. We also extend thanks to the U.S. Ambassador and to our many partners in Rwanda, for hosting us and being with us during these celebrations.”
Dwight Scott, the board chair said: “I know I speak for all of the board members when I say how impressed I was to see the importance that the Rwandan government puts on conservation. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is very proud to support the government’s efforts to conserve gorillas and all biodiversity, as well as to help the communities who live near the gorillas”.