Rwanda: Ellen Degeneres Campus – Saving Gorillas, Taking Rwanda to the World

In 1970, the National Geographic did a story about a woman deep in the African juggles who was working to save gorillas; the magazine was sold in the United States. A 12-year old girl found the magazine in her parents’ house and was amazed when she saw Dian Fossey holding a baby gorilla.

That girl is Ellen DeGeneres, and she still describes her memories of Dian Fossey as “this brave, amazing, trailblazing woman living on a mountain by herself with these massive, wild creatures.”

Be it Fossey or the National Geographic magazine publishers, none of them knew that a story in the 1970 edition would eventually come back to benefit an entire country, 50 years later.

Today, DeGeneres has come to the primates to step in Fossey’s footsteps. Her arrival is set to heavily benefit Rwanda in the areas of tourism revenues and producing the next generation of scientists, global conservationists, zoologists and anthropologists – all coming from Rwanda to the world.

DeGeneres delivers remarks during the official inauguration of the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund on June 7.

Ellen’s partner, Portia de Rossi learned early in their relationship, about Ellen’s wish to come see the gorillas and make an impact, and “it stuck with me, because over the years Ellen has met the most amazing people on earth, really, yet the person who had the greatest impact on her was someone she never met, Dian Fossey.”

For that milestone birthday in 2018, de Rossi says, “I didn’t want to get her another watch. I knew the show was ending, and I wanted her to be engaged in something else she loved, plus I wanted her to remember what was important to her when she was a kid. This is how I offered to partner with Dian Fossey Fund and we put up Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.”

Fast-forward; speaking during the official launch of the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, the CEO of Rwanda Development Board, Claire Akamanzi spoke of how the campus is set to impact Rwanda.

“Portia and Ellen have chosen Rwanda and bestowed this incredible gift. This campus that they have enabled with infrastructure that blends seamlessly with the nature around us will be a global hub for scientific advancement. It will support Rwanda’s ecotourism policy and will contribute to a bright future for the mountain gorillas that we all aspire for,” said Akamanzi.

She added that the Dian Fossey Fund boasts 55 years of research which is incredible. “This has been a constituency of research and conservation in Rwanda and the world.”

“Thank you for bringing the world to Rwanda and to Kinigi specifically. Ellen has shared her platform with Rwanda from the gorilla habitants. Since this project started 4 years ago, Ellen has talked and talked about Rwanda 2000 times. She has taken Rwanda to the world, and from this campus, the world will come to Rwanda,” said the RDB boss.

The campus, which was designed by sustainably minded architecture firm MASS Design Group, offers immersive and educational experiences, such as watching mountain gorillas on film in the 360-degree Irmelin DiCaprio Theater, “which is really very overwhelmingly beautiful,” says de Rossi.

The main entrance of the newly inaugurated Ellen DeGeneres Campus. The $15 million campus is located in the foothills of the Virunga Massif in Kinigi, in Musanze District. Over 250,000 plant species are growing up in the campus landscape.

The campus so far has seen about 5,000 visitors, two-fifths of those have been Rwandan students. The hope, says de Rossi, is that the next generation of conservationists in the country are “Rwandans rather than folks from other countries.”

According to Felix Ndagijimana, the Fossey Fund’s director of Rwanda programs “The Ellen Campus represents a huge expansion of our teaching and laboratory spaces, enabling us to not just increase but transform our programs to study gorillas and their critical forest habitat and bring educational opportunities to early career African scientists and members of the local community.”

The Fossey Fund’s president and chief scientific officer, Dr. Tara Stoinski, also has big expectations from the campus; “From the outset, the mission of this project has focused on creating a space to engage the many stakeholders in conservation–students, scientists, tourists, conservation partners, community members–to advance our collective goal of saving gorillas and, more broadly, the planet. It is our hope that people who visit the Ellen DeGeneres Campus will leave inspired to make a difference, just as Dian Fossey did.”

Officials say, with a 25 % increase of the Virunga National Park coverage, as announced by the Prime Minister Édouard Ngirente, the increase in gorilla population and the existence of the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, Rwanda is bound to see an increase in tourism revenues as traffic of researchers coming into the country.

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