The Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Rwanda—A Future for Gorillas and Conservation
Dian Fossey began this program in 1967 when she erected two tents in the meadow woods between Karisimbi and Visoke Volcanoes. From there, the Fossey Fund grew to lead the gorilla conservation program from one person to employing more than 300 staff today. The program also hugely supports communities surrounding the protected forests that would have conflicted with the survival of the mountain gorillas.
Until 2022, the program worked out of rented spaces with limited facilities, far from the gorilla habitat and the communities it served. At its 50th anniversary in 2018, the Fossey Fund leadership strategically moved to bring an age-old dream to life and created a purposeful facility to accelerate science and conservation work in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.
In a dreamy turn of events, Ellen DeGeneres and her wife, Portia de Rossi, led a swarm of donors to support this project and make this state-of-the-art research and learning facility come alive. In 2012, the ambitious conservation team opened a permanent home in Rwanda and named it the ‘Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.’
The Ellen Campus is a multi-acre, eco-friendly facility in three artistic buildings adjacent to the Volcanoes National Park – the Cindy Broder Conservation Gallery, the Sandy & Harold Price Research Center, the Rob, and Melani Walton Education Center and housing for visiting students and researchers. The Campus serves as a gateway to conservation for the stakeholders who work with the Fund and visitors from around the world and creates space for shaping the next generation of conservationists.
Science is at the core of the Fossey Fund, with the Sandy and Harold Price Research Center as a state-of-the-art facility advancing research in genetics, physiology, and paleontology. The facility provides a spacious lab that allows scientific collaborators, students, and more training opportunities for young African conservationists.
The Campus is a living laboratory with over 250,000 native plants that make up the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo Interpretive Trails, providing a rich experience for field trips. In addition, the Cindy Broder Conservation Gallery is an immersive public exhibit developed to tell the historical timeline story of mountain gorilla research and conservation.
It includes original, never-before-seen artifacts from Dian Fossey’s nearly two decades living with the gorillas, stunning visual experiences, including virtual and augmented reality and a 360-degree immersive theater, and numerous engaging edutainment possibilities to learn more about the science and the people behind the conservation success of mountain gorillas.
The Campus Architecture
The Ellen Gorilla Campus Architectural design was done by the award-winning MASS Design Group. The design was recently named one of Africa’s ten most-anticipated architectural projects and featured on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and in Architectural Digest.
The fifteen million dollar project was built with locally sourced materials and supplies; embodying the Fossey Fund’s mission to preserve and limit its environmental impact through rainwater harvesting, green roofs, the reforestation of former agricultural land, and a constructed wetland to promote biodiversity and treat wastewater.
What does the Dian Fossey Fund do?
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund runs the longest-running gorilla research site in the world, started by Dr. Dian Fossey in 1967. The gorilla research site includes cutting-edge, award-winning science on gorillas, their habitat, and more. Rwandan site annually spends thousands of hours collecting basic information on all aspects of gorilla life, including ranging patterns, changes in group composition (such as births, deaths, and transfers), feeding and social behavior, health status, and major events such as dominance shifts and group interactions.
The Rwandan government, local partners, and scientists worldwide use the research databases to answer critical questions about gorillas and many aspects of conservation—the conservation program not only studies gorillas but other animals and plants in the gorilla forests.
The Fossey Fund extends their research into the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the little-known critically endangered Grauer’s gorillas, found only in the DRC, to understand their ranging patterns, genetic diversity, diet, and population density, all vital information for developing effective conservation strategies. The research extends into other aspects of the rainforest ecosystem.
Gorillas in Rwanda, Uganda, and DR Congo live in areas with some of the world’s richest biodiversity, with many important species found only in these places. The Fossey Gorilla Fund has been actively monitoring the ecosystem for years. For example, like many other rainforest animals, gorillas rely on specific plants for food. Changes in food-plant availability may be one of the earliest observed responses to rapid global climate change. Being there to avoid drastic consequences could potentially save many animals other than gorillas.
Other biodiversity studied by the Fossey Fund include
Golden monkeys – the only other primate (endangered) living with the mountain gorillas
Essential food plants for mountain gorillas, Grauer’s gorillas, and golden monkeys
Amphibians and wetlands – good indicators of overall ecosystem health
Common bird species – a reliable sign of biodiversity
Plants and animals at the Ellen DeGeneres Campus
Long-term conservation depends on equipping the next generation of leaders with the skills to address future challenges. The Fossy Fund provides young African scientists the skills they need to become future conservation, science, and education leaders. It includes training hundreds of local college students annually, providing undergraduate and graduate degree scholarships to staff, professional internships, and building the capacity for national park staff.
Each year, the Fund reaches more than 400 conservation students from universities in Rwanda and Congo, teaching them about gorilla conservation, scientific methods, and field research skills. They also provide intensive supervision for college students conducting their senior thesis research projects and post-graduate internships.
Helping people while saving gorillas
An integral part of successful and sustainable conservation is the involvement and engagement of local communities that face critical needs, such as clean water, food security, and limited livelihood opportunities. The Fossy Fund helps address these issues and brings education programs to thousands of children and adults.
They work with local primary schools and reach over 8,000 elementary school children with supplies, learning materials, courses, and teacher training. We also lead teacher training programs that help equip primary school teachers to provide more widespread conservation education.
Citizen Science is a program we provide for secondary schools in Rwanda. It includes environmental clubs, class work and lectures on the scientific process, creating school gardens, and actual field research. Students work on different conservation research topics each year, such as migratory birds, butterflies, and climate change.
Other projects they help facilitate for young students include:
- A conservation debate program.
- Summer camp at our Ellen Campus.
- Special activities for World Gorilla Day each year.
Visiting The Ellen Campus in Rwanda
The Ellen DeGeneres Campus is not only a hub for scientific discovery but also heavily supports Rwanda’s ecotourism sector, managed by the Rwandan government. Tours in Volcanoes National Park to see the gorillas play a crucial role in providing revenue for both the park and local communities through employment and revenue sharing.
The tourism experience offered by the Campus allows visitors to tour, grab a cup of coffee at the Gorilla Café, peruse the gift shop, and, most importantly, have a wonderful time while learning more about gorillas and the important work to help conserve them.
The Ellen Campus is open seven throughout the week from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, with gates closing at 4:00 pm. It is closed on the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda, which happens every April 7 and is celebrated across Rwanda.
Self-guided tours allow visitors to experience immersive activities in the Cindy Broder Conservation Gallery. Here, they find a 360-degree theater, a replica of Dian Fossey’s original forest cabin, a cafe, and many interesting artifacts. The tour’s nature trail also teaches visitors about the region’s biodiversity.
Self-guided tours don’t need visitors to pre-book but just walk in with $20 as donation fees to support conservation efforts.
Behind-the-scenes tours offer a guided tour of the entire Campus with a Fossey Fund senior staff member. This option includes visiting the Cindy Broder Conservation Gallery public exhibit and behind the scenes, where you will better understand the multifaceted work to protect Africa’s gorillas.
Behind-the-scenes tours can occur anytime, with the last booking at 3:00 pm, generally taking about two hours. It requires pre-booking with a minimum donation of $800 per group.
Silverback Sundowner Tours
Silverback Sundowner Tours are special evening gatherings extending beyond 4:00 pm (when the gates close) and featuring breathtaking views of the mountains, light refreshments, and visits with Fossey Fund staff! Guests are first taken on a tour of the public exhibit and then meet up with Campus’s gorilla experts in the Virunga Overlook. Here, they share experiences and chat with staff about conservation over a fine selection of non-alcoholic drinks, wine, and light snacks.
Silverback Sundowner Tours happen from 5:00 pm to 6:00 pm and require pre-booking with a $100 per person donation or $500 for groups of less than five people.
Please note that temperatures at the Campus can be chilly, so visitors are encouraged to dress to stay warm, especially during the rainy seasons of April to May and October to November.
Dian Fossey Gorilla Expeditions
Gorilla Junction can organize a gorilla trekking tour in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park with a Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund staff on an exclusive expedition to see the mountain gorillas. We take care of all the paperwork and logistics, pick you up from the airport in Kigali, check you into a luxury or comfortable forest lodge, and manage all your daily excursions into the woods and to the Ellen DeGeneres Campus.
Trekking to see mountain gorillas in the misty mountain rainforests of Rwanda is an incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience that all nature lovers must include on their bucket lists. Going on this adventure with a conservation research staff is truly immersive and charming when you include the Rwanda Elen Campus tour.