When Dian Fossey set out to study mountain gorillas of Virunga Mountains in the 1960s, she did not envision that her work would yield such immense results. The primatologist dedicated her life to the conservation of these endangered species, who were at the brink of extinction, and paid the ultimate price. Today, the mountain gorilla is the only great ape experiencing an increase in population, thanks to decades-long, unyielding conservation efforts. Fossey’s pioneering work is celebrated, and preservation efforts continue at the brand new Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, the first and permanent home of the conservation organization in Rwanda, located in the foothills of Volcanoes National Park.
Gorilla trekking is probably at the top of the list for many animal lovers. Now, this incredible, life-changing activity can be combined with a visit to the Ellen Campus for a more educational and enriching experience. In June 2022, global icon Ellen DeGeneres and her wife, Portia de Rossi, along with supporters and dignitaries, gathered to officially open the campus doors. At the celebration, DeGeneres stood in awe of floor-to-ceiling images of Fossey and the gorillas she loved. She spent a quiet moment in Fossey’s chair, in a replica of her tent, reflecting on the culmination of a lifelong dream.
“Dian Fossey was my hero, and her dedication to gorillas changed the world. The Fossey Fund has been here for over 50 years. Thanks to their work, the commitment of the Rwandan government, and the efforts of many conservation groups here today, the mountain gorilla population has gone from 300 in the entire world to over 1000,” DeGeneres shared in a press release.
Founded in 1967, the Fossey Fund is the longest-running and largest organization dedicated to gorilla conservation. It takes a boots-on-the-ground approach with researchers in the forest every single day, studying and protecting gorillas. The Fossey Fund now has the space they need to conduct their work. The $15 million facility is made possible by many generous donations, including from The Ellen Fund, which supports global conservation efforts for endangered species.
The building was designed by MASS Design Group with sustainability in mind, featuring eco-friendly elements taken from Fossey’s original tent camp at the Karisoke Research Center. It includes a regenerative, biodiverse landscape that hosts 250,000 native plants that encircles the three main buildings, as well as green roofs that blend into the surrounding lush landscape. Built during the pandemic, the construction provided jobs and training for 2,400 workers from the surrounding areas, in line with the goal of making a positive local impact. The campus features over 1,600 pieces of furniture designed by MASS Design, and made in Rwanda by artisans and design cooperatives.
This state-of-the-art research and learning facility features interactive exhibits in the Cindy Broder Conservation Gallery, scientific laboratories at the Sandy and Harold Price Research Center, and a science library, classrooms, and lab at the Rob and Melani Walton Education Center, along with student housing, all spread over 12 acres. It also boasts a 360-degree immersive theater and a computer lab, made possible through a generous donation by Leonardo DiCaprio.
Outside, the Gorilla Trail leads guests through a day in the life of a mountain gorilla; the Biodiversity Trail provides opportunities to learn about the evolution of various plants, and the trail near the wetlands educates visitors about the wastewater treatment system.
While the exhibits and tours are inspirational, the facility’s main goal is to inspire the next generation of conservationists in Rwanda. Since opening its doors in February, it has welcomed 5,000 visitors, including nearly 2,000 students from nearby schools.
“It’s educating a future generation of scientists. It’s a model for others to follow, from the sustainable architecture to the community’s involvement,” said DeGeneres.
Gorilla Trekking Booking And Tourism Impact
Tour operator Go2Africa has partnered with the DFGF to offer immersive experiences that help raise money for the foundation and give travelers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get up close to the mountain gorillas. This includes a researcher joining the trek, a guided behind-the-scenes tour of the campus, a gorilla conservation masterclass back at the lodge, and a sundowner on the facility’s second-floor veranda, overlooking the iconic volcanoes of the Virunga Mountains that the gorillas call home. These experiences can be booked alongside any of Go2Africa’s Gorilla trekking tours in Rwanda.
Each permit costs $1,500, but the price tag means more money goes to the conservation efforts and activities that benefit the surrounding communities, and it is one of the best forms of regenerative travel. Volcanoes National Park is under the management of Rwanda Development Board (RDB), and as part of the Tourism Revenue Sharing (TRS) Policy, RDB shares 10 percent of tourism income with the people living around the national park. The rest goes to the development of the country as a whole, benefiting all Rwandans through infrastructure, social services, and more. Trekking further benefits people in the surrounding communities as it employs and trains people to be trackers, guides, and porters.
What To Expect On A Gorilla Trek
On the morning of the trek, everyone gathers at Volcanoes National Park Headquarters, in open-air areas overlooking the Virunga Mountains. As people wait to meet their guides, they can enjoy a fresh beverage from Question Coffee. Individuals are then asked if they prefer an easy, moderate, or demanding hike to see the gorillas, all of them guaranteeing sightings. Groups of eight are formed, with two guides per each group, who instruct everyone about the trekking experience, including what not to do. Visitors are urged to wear a mask to prevent transmission of diseases like COVID-19, keep a distance of at least 15 feet from the apes and stay as calm and quiet as possible. Hikers are then asked to follow their respective guides in their own vehicles to the starting point, which can vary depending on which mountain is being ascended.
Upon arrival at the designated spot, the guides further share tips about the gorilla group that will be visited on that particular day. There are 20 families in Volcanoes National Park that are habituated to humans, out of which 12 families are open to visitors. These often large families are followed by trackers from morning until they make a new nest each and settle down for the night. The guides are constantly in touch with the trackers to learn the exact location of the gorilla group.
At the beginning of the hike, porters are available for hire, ($10 per porter, per day). It’s highly encouraged to hire at least one porter, as traversing the terrain carrying a backpack can be difficult, even for experienced hikers. Those with physical limitations and conditions like asthma can benefit from having more than one porter. Hiring porters also helps keep those living nearby employed, and visitors may get a chance to work with a female porter.
The entire trekking experience could take up to half a day or more, depending on the severity of the hike and the location of the animals. Those who signed up for the more arduous trek might spend the first part of their trip hiking uphill, while those who are on the easier trek may spend an hour or so waiting to hear back from the trackers to find the most efficient way to reach the group.
The much-anticipated gorilla encounter is nothing short of magical. Seeing our closest relatives in the wild up close is unlike any other experience. Watching them go about their lives peacefully, munching on bamboo shoots, playing with their siblings, and moms caring for their offspring is worth all the effort.
Guides will help visitors find the ideal spot to observe these majestic animals and lead the group to the best possible sightings for the following hour. Visitors are encouraged to take as many pictures and videos as possible, but to also sit still and observe these great apes. These great apes have overcome incredible obstacles and are truly the perfect examples of what can happen if we come together to care for our wildlife and planet.
The Rwandan Government requires all gorilla trekking participants to take a COVID-19 PCR test prior to embarking on the trek. At the time of writing, Rwanda requires an antigen test taken within 72 hours prior to first departure (from the country of origin), an antigen test upon landing, and one before leaving the country.