Inside Ellen DeGeneres Campus expected to boost mountain gorilla conservation efforts

On 8 June 2022 at 11:18

Ellen DeGeneres Campus expected to boost mountain gorilla conservation efforts and promote Rwanda’s tourism among other benefits, has been officially inaugurated at the foothills of Virunga National Park in Kinigi Sector, Musanze District of Northern Province.

The campus was built by an American television personality and comedian, Ellen DeGeneres renowned for his talk show dubbed ’The Ellen DeGeneres Show’.

DeGeneres was gifted with the campus by her long-time partner Portia de Rossi considering her love for Diana Fossey, a celebrated gorilla conservationist who died in 1985.

Construction of the multimillion-dollar facility was completed at a cost of US$15 million (over Rwf14 billion). It was initially opened to public on 1st February 2022 to foster research and education on gorillas while more than 2400 Rwandans got jobs during construction of the Ellen DeGeneres Campus.

The opened campus will be home to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund which has been operating in Rwanda for more than 50 years through its Karisoke Research Centre, based in Musanze District, Northern Province.

The Dian Fossey Fund is the world’s longest-running and largest organisation dedicated entirely to the conservation of gorillas.

It particularly works in areas of conservation of mountain gorillas and their habitat, scientific research on the gorillas and greater biodiversity of the region, educating the next generation of African scientists through working with Rwandan universities, and engaging local communities to increase their support for conservation.

Ellen and Portia’s lead gift enabled the Fossey Fund to move forward on an ambitious, 20-year dream project to build a permanent home in Rwanda aimed at accelerating their science and conservation work. The Ellen Campus is the vision of the award-winning MASS Design Group and has been named one of Africa’s 10 most anticipated architectural projects.

Founded by the legendary Dian Fossey, whose life and ultimately death were portrayed in the movie “Gorillas in the Mist,” the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is the world’s largest and longest-running organization dedicated entirely to gorilla conservation.

After launching Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in 1966, Dian Fossey was killed in 1985.

Its work combines daily, boots-on-the ground protection and study of individual gorillas with people-centered programs aimed at training the next generation of African conservationists and addressing the basic needs of the people who share the gorillas’ forest home through food and water security, livelihood and education programs.

Feared by Dian Fossey to be extinct by the year 2000, mountain gorillas represent a rare conservation success story, with the population in the region growing from a low of 250 in the 1980s to more than 1000 today.

The Ellen Campus established to foster gorilla conservation efforts is an eco-friendly facility adjacent to the Volcanoes National Park which includes three main buildings—the Sandy and Harold Price Research Center, the Cindy Broder Conservation Gallery and the Rob and Melani Walton Education Center—as well as housing for visiting students and researchers.

An extensive ‘living laboratory’ has been created on the former agricultural site through the planting of more than 250,000 native plants and the inclusion of green roofs, water harvesting and a constructed wetland for wastewater treatment.

The Ellen Campus is also designed to support Rwanda’s ecotourism sector. Managed by the Rwandan government, tourism to see the gorillas plays a critical role in providing revenue for the park as well as supporting local communities through employment and revenue sharing.

Visitors to the Ellen Campus can immerse themselves in an interactive, educational exhibit located in the Cindy Broder Conservation Gallery.

Designed to tell the story of mountain gorilla research and conservation from Fossey’s time to modern day, it includes original, never before displayed artifacts from Dian Fossey’s almost two decades of living amongst the gorillas, stunning visual effects through a 360 degree immersive experience, as well as augmented and virtual reality and numerous engaging, edutainment opportunities to learn more about the science and, most importantly, people behind the conservation success of mountain gorillas.

The official inauguration of Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund took place on Tuesday 7th June 2022 in Kinigi.

It was graced by Prime Minister, Dr. Edouard Ngirente and the CEO of Rwanda Development Board (RDB) among others.

Premier Ngirente said that the launch is an important milestone in conservation of our mountain gorillas, which remains at the heart of Rwanda’s priorities.

He thanked Ellen and Portia for their dedication to Rwanda and long-term passion for the conservation of the mountain gorillas and for continuing the remarkable work of Dian Fossey.

"I am confident that the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund will play a critical role in carrying on Dian’s legacy. It will ensure a bright future for the mountain gorillas and build a thriving community of scientists and conservations right here in Kinigi," said Premier Ngirente.

Speaking at the event; Clare Akamanzi, the Chief Executive Officer of RDB, said that the campus is a perfect example of sharing knowledge and support for ecotourism policy.

"We commit to see this campus prosper. You took Rwanda to the world and now this campus is bringing the world to Rwanda," she told DeGeneres.

DeGeneres also expressed delight for seeing her dreams becoming a reality.

"I have looked up to Dian Fossey since I was 12 years old, and this past week in Rwanda, I was able to tour the Ellen DeGeneres Campus. It has been so emotional and so incredible to see the impact it has already had," said DeGeneres at the event.

"I can’t say enough about Rwanda, there is so much to do and I will keep talking about Rwanda. I have always dreamt of being here. Dian Fossey taught us that we should look at different things differently rather than fighting them. She’s been my hero," she stated.

DeGeneres said that the campus was named the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund to recognize the legacy of the late Dian Fossey in service of mountain gorillas.

"We want to produce the next generation of conservationists here in Rwanda. This campus also contributes to Rwanda ecosystem development," said Tara Stoinski, president of Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

She said that the campus will focus on creating a space to engage the many stakeholders in conservation —students, scientists, tourists, conservation partners, and community members — to advance a collective goal of saving gorillas and, more broadly, the planet.

There are more than 1,000 mountain gorillas living in the world, more than half of which live in the Virunga Mountains, and the remainder can be found in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, according to World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

All photos: Mugwiza Olivier