On the 24th of September 1967 a ‘racist, alcoholic’* woman who, by most accounts, was not very easy to like, pitched two tents in a remote rainforest of the Ruhengeri Province of Rwanda.
She called her camp Karisoke. The people would call her Nyirmachabelli—woman who lives alone in the mountains.
Dian Fossey was in the Virungas to save the Mountain Gorilla and in her famous book ‘Gorilla’s in the Mist’ she wrote that she never knew what impact those two tents would eventually have.
Her thoughts about the evils of tourism, however, were very clear.
Dian was born in San Francisco on January 16, 1932.
Her childhood home was not pet friendly and the only animal she was ever allowed to keep was one gold fish. Apart from horses, which she adored and rode competitively, she had very little contact with any other animals until she took up a pre-veterinary course at the University of California, Davis. One of the foremost primatologists of our world also had trouble with basic sciences and so ended up studying occupational therapy and working with autistic children.
She was 31 before she took her life savings and borrowed a year’s salary to take a seven-week trip to Africa.
Fossey’s safari with guide John Alexander should go down in history as a blueprint for the incredible wonders excellent travel design can achieve!
During her safari she ran into Louis Leakey who would famously go on to sponsor the ‘Trimates’ of all-woman primatology pioneers. Three years later when he told her she would have to remove her appendix as a precaution to scare her off, she had it whipped out before he could explain that he had only said so to test her.
As she arrived in the Congo at the end of 1966, civil war was ready to erupt.
By July of 1967 she found herself captured and spent two weeks interred with rebel soldiers before bribing them into driving her to Uganda where she had them arrested… Then she promptly set up camp in Rwanda against all warnings from the U.S. Embassy.
She quickly disproved the popular idea that gorillas were bloodthirsty animals ready to attack humans at the earliest opportunity.
Telling them apart by their noses she gave them all sweet, unscientific names that made it even easier for everyone to fall in love with them.
As for Dian’s love life: in spite of several affairs with men, it seemed none could claim her heart as Africa and the Gorillas had.
Her death was a brutal mystery at the age of 53 and like the mists that hover above the Virunga volcanoes, it feels as if we are all still holding our breath and waiting, just a moment longer, for everything about her life to become clearer… and then we will understand.
Maybe it is the fact that we will never really know Dian which makes her the one person Ellen DeGeneres would most like to interview.
On the 26th of January 2018 Portia Lee James DeGeneres told her wife on national television that her 60th birthday present was the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund which will sit within over 50,000 square feet of buildings upon multiple acres, immediately adjacent to Volcanoes National Park.
As people Ellen and Dian could hardly be more different.
For a start Ellen is currently literally the most popular human on earth (having won more People’s Choice awards than anyone else). She is also exceedingly liberal, you would have to search very far to find someone who would label her racist, and she is about to actively encourage tourism to Rwanda.
Of course, when it comes to passion, rocking the boat and swimming against the current they might actually be on a par.
It probably would have made for great reality television watching them work together.
The Ellen DeGeneres Wildlife Fund has chosen MASS Design to work with on the new build.
The group began during the design and build of the Butaro District Hospital project in Rwanda in 2008 and has since expanded to over a dozen countries in Africa and the Americas. They believe architecture either helps or it hurts and that it is a mechanism that projects values far beyond walls and into the lives of communities and people.
So, they address challenges of social injustices and the agency and power that industry carries with it.
The entire build has been designed with the best in sustainable architecture, local resourcing and environmentally-responsible practices in mind. It will have a scientific and conservation library, collaborative workspace to encourage engagement between staff, partners, students and the community and also outdoor living laboratories where students will be able to observe and participate in concepts such as reforestation or citizen science.
Not everyone can visit the mountain gorillas and the laboratory will bring the forest and its biodiversity to the less lucky.
There will also be meeting spaces and exhibition spaces to attract tourists, classrooms and dormitories.
Where would we be today if Dian never pitched those two tents?
Well. In spite of all the work done since her death there are only 880 Mountain Gorilla’s alive on the entire earth today. But it is safe to say the Mountain Gorilla population would not have doubled in Rwanda without Dian Fossey. And they might also not be the only great ape to be increasing in number in the wild.
Where will we be tomorrow without women like Portia and Ellen DeGeneres?
Luckily, on this Women’s Day and all the ones to come we are looking around us—especially in a company like Rothschild Safaris which happens to run entirely on estrogen—and feeling a little smug.
The Ellen Degeners Wildlife Fund is the ultimate dream project, backed by incredible money… but more than that. It is a gift of love and understanding. And maybe with that, the present moment goes back to reconcile itself with the past in the last words Dian ever wrote on earth:
“When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate on the preservation of the future.”
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International is dedicated to the conservation, protection and study of gorillas; to the training of the next generation of African conservationists; and to building the conservation capacity of local communities.
We work with the two subspecies of eastern gorillas, the mountain gorilla in Rwanda and the Grauer’s gorilla in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
We have four main pillars to ensure the survival of wild gorillas: providing daily boots-on-the-ground protection; cutting-edge scientific study on the gorillas and their ecosystems; training the next generation of African conservationists; and helping communities near the gorillas’ habitats thrive.
Mountain gorillas are one of the most critically endangered animals on earth. Threats to their survival include their small population size, disease, poaching, and human encroachment on their habitat.
Yet there is cause for hope. Today, mountain gorillas are the only wild ape whose numbers are rising, with twice as many than when Fossey began her research.
If you would like to make a donation in honor of Ellen and this great news, please click here. You can signify that your donation is in her honor or in ours as a congratulation on this special occasion!
*Tunku VaradarajanTunku Varadarajan (2002-03-04). “Giants of the Jungle”. Online.wsj.com. Retrieved 2014-01-16.
Gorilla imagery by Bryan Hanson and Mike Arney