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By The Way
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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gorillas are Rwanda’s main attraction. Dian Fossey would hate that.

A new $15 million gorilla museum celebrates Fossey’s legacy, but she never wanted to share the apes with the world

A female adult mountain gorilla pictured at Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park in 2021. With hundreds of mountain gorillas in residence, the park is a conservation triumph. (Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)
11 min

KINIGI, Rwanda — As a museum, it’s out of the way, hours from the capital and up windy jungle roads that hug a chain of active volcanoes. But as a research center, it’s perfect.

Welcome to Africa’s Albertine Rift, a geological wonder that drew legendary gorilla activist Dian Fossey over half a century ago. Today, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund continues her legacy, a little farther down the mountain from her high-altitude camp. Its new headquarters make up a $15 million cultural and research center — an ironic bookend to her own narrative.

Fossey almost single-handedly brought the near-extinction of mountain gorillas to the world’s attention. She was also fiercely territorial and despised tourism. Former colleagues remember her as complicated, driven, even obsessive in a belief that she alone could protect gorillas. What would she say if she knew tourism now funded gorilla conservation?

Back in Fossey’s day, the tracks were dirt; now they’re paved smooth, at least on this side of the famed Virunga Mountains, just outside Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, where gorilla tourism has become one of the continent’s most popular — and expensive — wildlife attractions.

Conservation’s most complicated problems have centered on who benefits from protected spaces and species — and who gets to study them. The gorilla center helps change that by providing opportunity for Rwandans. Part science center and part museum, the center can help tourists supplement their gorilla treks. However, it tells the swashbuckling side of Fossey’s story rather than examining the thornier parts leading up to her mysterious death.

The new complex housing the nonprofit opened in February. In June, it hosted a dedication ceremony for the Ellen DeGeneres Campus, named for its lead donor. Contributions also came from Leonardo DiCaprio and Sigourney Weaver, who played Fossey in the film adaptation of Fossey’s book, “Gorillas in the Mist.”

The point here, staff say, is looking toward the future and giving locals the tools to build careers. Africans writ large now have the chance to connect with a species that’s long been the purview of Western tourists and researchers. The campus isn’t so much reimagining the past as fixing its legacy.

“We will be able to accelerate both our science and our training of early-career African conservationists and scientists,” says Felix Ndagijimana, the nonprofit’s director of Rwanda programs.

The gorilla tourism experience has a familiar drawback in the world of sustainable travel: The high travel costs price out all but the wealthiest, making even modest hotels charge four-star rates. The more visitors arrive, the more they test the fragile environments they seek to protect.

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The Ellen DeGeneres Campus aims to attract them across a sprawl of 12 acres. It took three years to build and provided 2,400 construction jobs to community members, many of them local women. The design includes three curvy stone-clad buildings with bio labs, classrooms, housing, a restaurant and a 360-degree theater.

Virtual and augmented reality installations help teach visually, and so do artifacts like Fossey’s never-before-seen field notes and photos. “The whole idea is education,” says Tara Stoinski, 53, the American primatologist leading the fund. While admission is free for Rwandans, international visitors are asked to pay donations starting at $20.

“In its first five months of operations, more than 11,000 people have come to the campus, and it is very fulfilling to us that over 50 percent of them have been Rwandan,” says Ndagijimana, who rose through the ranks himself, joining the group in 2004 as a research assistant before getting a master’s in primate conservation from Oxford Brookes University.

He calls educating Rwandans at the campus “essential.”

A conservation success story

According to the African Wildlife Foundation, there are only about 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the wild. They live in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and here in Rwanda, where it costs $1,500 for a permit to spend just one hour observing these rare apes in the wild.

There were far fewer gorillas in Fossey’s time. While the animals are still endangered, mostly because of habitat limitations and human competition, Fossey’s fund has been credited with helping bring this species back from the brink.

Extensive monitoring, community programs and research are its forte. For years, Stoinski says, “we had a rented office space: one lab, one room for meetings, and we didn’t have many Rwandans who came to visit.”

In Rwanda, tourism is a top source of foreign exchange, bringing in nearly half a billion dollars in 2019. Because much of that money is earmarked to support wildlife, tourism and conservation have developed a symbiotic relationship.

“They come from England, Germany, America, everywhere, for gorillas,” says Theogene Manirakiza, front office manager at Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, which runs about $200 a night in low season. “Business is good.”

Properties such as the One & Only Gorilla’s Nest start at around $5,000 and offer the kind of luxury amenities — high-end design, excellent food, attentive staff — that make you feel like you could be in Malibu or a French chateau. Two nights at Singita’s Kataza House villa cost a whopping $13,150 — but jobs created here incentivize protection, staff say, justifying the national narrative of feel-good tourism.

Last year, Singita opened a community culinary school and reforested lodge grounds to extend habitat. Those pricey gorilla trekking permits also contribute to Rwanda’s Development Board.

Some villages have been moved by the government to accommodate gorillas, but communities near national parks receive 10 percent of tourism revenue through the Rwanda Development Board, funding schools, clinics and other projects.

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Threats to gorillas

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund runs on a $5.5 million annual budget, and Stoinski says she oversees just under 300 staff in Rwanda and Congo. Many individual mountain gorillas have names and detailed family trees that Fossey started.

“Six generations of animals,” Stoinski says. “That’s not only the longest study of gorillas, that’s one of the longest-running studies of any animal species.”

Even during covid lockdowns, the fund never missed a day in the field. “I spent the morning with gorillas and I can’t begin to tell you how many behaviors I observed that could have been me and my kids,” Stoinski says. “You watch them and see us, our shared humanity.”

Mountain gorillas share 98 percent of our DNA and can eat up to 75 pounds a day (researchers say they love wild celery). Because they have been forced into islands of their habitat, they face increasing health risks caused by limited genetic diversity and reduced protection from disease transmission.

A deteriorating security situation in neighboring Congo, where the United Nations says Rwanda is providing military support to the rebel group M23, poses other kinds of risks. In June, cross-border rocket strikes killed two students in Kinigi, introducing a threat to Rwanda’s sunny-safe reputation as well as to gorillas who often travel over the frontier. Some gorillas share forests with guerrilla groups, too, which not only can expose the animals to human disease — a big killer of the species — but also threatens what little habitat they have left.

Since its brutal 1994 genocide, Rwanda has reinvented itself as stable conservation leader. But in hushed tones, its citizens deride an autocratic regime that suppresses human rights, noting the prosecution of “Hotel Rwanda” hero Paul Rusesabagina and the U.N. claims of aiding rebels.

Now the international community is perking up: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned these moves in a recent visit. And now that Congo has approved oil exploration, the entire gorilla ecosystem faces yet another existential threat.

A flawed icon

David Attenborough once lamented the irony of gorillas symbolizing violence when they’re actually peaceful. Another irony is that Fossey’s name is being used to promote tourism in Rwanda.

Amy Vedder, a lecturer at the Yale School of the Environment, remembers when Fossey “shot over the heads of tourists,” referring to a 1980 incident with a group of Dutch visitors. “Dian was adamant about not having gorilla tourism,” she says.

Vedder and her husband, Bill Weber, came to Rwanda in 1978 for PhDs on ecology and conservation socioeconomics, hoping to figure how gorillas survived in limited habitats and to get Rwandans to engage. They would start the Mountain Gorilla Project and launch tourism in partnership with Rwanda’s park service, even raising their kids here for a few years.

Today, tourism and awareness are regarded as essential for habitat protection. But “Dian was not a conservationist,” Vedder maintains. “She was dedicated to gorillas and she made gorillas attractive in a way others couldn’t.” Fossey’s dedication meant only “she could be the one to save them,” Vedder says.

That dedication was legendary: Fossey arrived in Congo in the 1960s, untrained, inexperienced and dreamy. Nobody thought she’d be able to hack it alone. She almost didn’t.

“She was solitary, didn’t like visitors, discouraged them, really,” says Sandy Harcourt, an English biologist who worked with Fossey at the Karisoke Research Center in the 1970s.

Early on, Fossey was jailed by Congolese soldiers, even possibly raped (she often changed her story). She decamped to Rwanda, where she stayed for 18 years.

Almost each morning, rain or shine, she hiked muddy slopes to spend hours watching the individual gorillas that became her surrogate family. At night, she typed notes, desperate to prove she belonged, that gorillas mattered. But she eschewed local support because she was fiercely possessive about what she called her gorillas. Many scientists didn’t consider her methods scientific.

Despite her introverted nature, Fossey won over the public in National Geographic articles and TV appearances. She demystified the species — and accidentally globalized it.

She took gorilla killings personally. Former colleagues say she had a reputation for capturing and torturing poachers, even adopting voodoo-like rituals to scare locals. Colleagues have suggested that some gorilla killings were in retaliation to Fossey’s crusade against cattle herders and poachers. But playing the six-foot witch backfired. Her obsession cost her.

In 1985, Fossey was murdered in her cabin, a crime that remains unsolved. A replica of that cabin now sits in the museum, next to pictures of her in the bush.

The future of research

Today, unknowns still abound: How will increasing numbers of tourists have an impact on fragile gorilla groups? Will nearby conflicts affect those groups — and decades of work? And what happens to Rwanda’s limited habitat now that Congo has approved oil exploration?

“It’s very concerning,” fund leader Stoinski says. “The Congo basin is the second-largest tropical rainforest we have left. And this is one of the few conservation success stories we have. Dian worried gorillas would be extinct by the year 2000. Flash forward, and they’re the only great ape expanding.”

Stoinski shares Fossey’s focus — minus the hubris. While Fossey was untethered by choice, cancer took Stoinski’s husband in 2013. Despite raising two teenage girls as a single mother, she spends four months a year in the field.

“This work helped me incredibly to face the challenges in my life,” Stoinski says. “Dian was much more alone. I can’t imagine what she faced, watching the gorillas that were like her family being killed, and to be killed herself in a horrific way.”

With the rebound in the gorilla population in the decades since Fossey’s death, Stoinski is optimistic despite the challenges.

“It’s not a quick fix, but with long-term investment, leadership and good communication, we can turn the tide,” she says. “People come to see gorillas here and fall in love with the country. It can be done.”