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TV host Ellen DeGeneres to visit Rwanda in mountain gorilla conservation effort

A mountain gorilla mother and her infant. Photo courtesy of UC Davis Wildlife Health Center

  • Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres earlier this year established a fund that will finance the building of a campus in Rwanda to support conservation and protection efforts for the critically endangered mountain gorilla.
  • The campus is being built in collaboration with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, and DeGeneres is scheduled to visit the site in the Virunga Mountains next week.
  • The initiative has been welcomed by conservationists and Rwandan government officials, and has received financial support and endorsements from prominent figures in Hollywood.

U.S. talk show host Ellen DeGeneres will be heading to Rwanda next week for the construction of a gorilla research facility being funded through her newly launched wildlife conservation foundation.

DeGeneres on May 16 confirmed she was building the “Ellen DeGeneres Campus” for scientists with the non-profit Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, an organization working to protect one of the last remaining populations of mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda.

The initiative is the inaugural project under the Ellen DeGeneres Wildlife Fund, which was established in February to help fund global wildlife conservation efforts.

Rangers in Rwanda survey a wild population of mountain gorillas. Image courtesy of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

“We have to raise $10 million to build the Foundation [the Ellen DeGeneres Wildlife Fund], and we will be leaving in a week to go to Africa,” DeGeneres said in an interview on her talk show.

The new facility will occupy some 4,650 square meters (50,000 square feet) of space adjacent to Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. It will feature a scientific and conservation library, laboratories, a meeting space, an exhibition on mountain gorilla conservation, and classrooms. The campus will also have accommodation to host up to 40 students and visiting researchers.

“This campus will inspire and educate local communities and tourists, engage scientific and conservation trailblazers to share knowledge and provide a training ground for a new wave of African scientists committed to conservation,” the Ellen DeGeneres Wildlife Fund said in a statement on its website.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, created by legendary primatologist and conservationist Dian Fossey, and originally known as the Digit Fund, welcomed the new initiative. It said the campus would expand the Fossey Fund’s science, research and conservation activities; enhance its educational and community programs; and engage people from Rwanda and the world to join the effort on behalf of wild gorillas.

Many of the Fossey Fund’s 115 employees spend their days in the dense forests of Rwanda, protecting and studying gorillas, according to the organization.

“We have continued Dian’s legacy for 50 years, and this new campus will serve as a brilliant focal point for our efforts to protect wild gorillas over the next decades,” Tara Stoinski, the group’s president and chief executive, said in a statement in February.

A mock-up of the Ellen DeGeneres Campus for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Rwanda. Image courtesy of The Ellen Show.

Kristen Lukas, conservation and science director at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, who also works with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, welcomed the proposed new campus.

“So excited about this wonderful news,” she tweeted at DeGeneres. “Your investment in the Fossey Fund and the gorillas of Rwanda will secure a future for gorillas for years to come.”

The news was also welcomed by the Rwanda Development Board, a government agency responsible for managing the country’s national parks.

“We will support the Ellen DeGeneres Wildlife Fund to meet its objectives in Rwanda,” Clare Akamanzi, the board’s chief executive, tweeted.

DeGeneres is raising money for her foundation by selling stuffed gorilla dolls, sneakers and clothing. The fund has also received support and endorsements from prominent figures in Hollywood, such as the actresses Natalie Portman, who donated $1,000 to the foundation, and Ellen Pompeo. The producers of the TV sitcom “Arrested Development,” which stars DeGeneres’s wife, Portia de Rossi, donated $50,000.

The Fossey Fund said it expected the campus to be open by 2020.

The Ellen DeGeneres Wildlife Fund has received donations and endorsements from across Hollywood to help the construction of a gorilla conservation campus in Rwanda. Image courtesy of The Ellen Show.

The mountain gorilla is listed as critically endangered, or a step away from being extinct in the wild, with an estimated population of less than 880. Threats to their survival include disease, poaching, and human encroachment on their habitat.

In Rwanda, where about 220 of the remaining gorillas live, they’re limited to a small island of forest surrounded by people. The human population density around the gorillas’ habitat is among the highest in Africa. Impoverished local populations still depend on the forest for some resources, such as water, wood and food, which puts pressure on the gorillas’ remaining habitat.

Fossey, who was drawn to gorillas during her first trip to Africa in 1963, became determined to study the habits of the primates. In 1967, she set up a camp in the Virunga Mountains and named it Karisoke, a portmanteau of the nearby peaks of Karisimbi and Bisoke. Fossey went on to study several dozen individual gorillas, gaining worldwide prominence in her determination to raise awareness of the species and protect them.

In addition to Karisoke, Fossey also founded what is today the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, which carries on and expands her legacy.

“This gift will be a spark which draws the brightest minds for the benefit of science, wild gorilla protection, and collaboration with the people who share their home with these animals,” the fund’s Stoinski said of the new campus.

Banner image: A mountain gorilla mother and her infant. Image courtesy of UC Davis Wildlife Health Center.

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