For more than half a century, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (The Fossey Fund) has continued the pioneering work of the iconic zoologist and conservationist Dian Fossey.
Today, the Fossey Fund works to preserve the mountain gorilla species in Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains that Fossey studied and loved, while at the same time, building a strong tradition of educating up-and-coming generations of scientists and providing outreach and education to local and international communities.
- Outreach that sustains humans and animals
One important way the fund helps support both Fossey’s vision and the communities that surround the research site is to help the people in these communities work toward a more sustainable future. About the interdependence of people, animals, and the environment, the fund’s tagline says it all: “Helping people. Saving gorillas.”
For the Fossey Fund, conservation begins at home. Numerous locals in Rwanda live in poverty with a shortage of the basics, such as safe water supplies and adequate health care, that keep communities healthy and prosperous. Through its community-partnering programs, the fund aims to take practical action in this critical area.
- Opening young eyes to the beauty of conservation
In local schools in Rwanda, the Fossey Fund provides environmental education programs designed for students of varying grade levels. The goal: to foster each student’s awareness of the importance of conservation and ability to help safeguard the environment for future generations.
The fund collaborates with Rwandan primary schools to bring classes, educational materials, and supplies to well over 5,000 schoolchildren. Students can also take part in conservation courses situated near the Fund’s Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Some of the most high-achieving students can participate in expanded nature walks, where they can meet the golden monkeys of the park.
- Developing Citizen Scientists
Older students can join the Fossey Fund’s Citizen Science track, which is specifically designed to meet the needs of secondary schools in the country.
Citizen Science consists of projects like planting and maintaining school gardens and conducting field research similar to that of adult scientists and conservationists. Citizen Scientists also learn the details of conservation through classroom lessons, clubs focused on environmental issues, and instruction on data entry and analysis.
Annual student projects center on a range of topics. Previous student groups have worked on projects involving climate change and bird and butterfly migration patterns.
- Training the trainers
In addition, Fossey Fund staff provide training for primary school teachers that empowers them to continue to expand younger students’ environmental knowledge.
The fund also provides teacher training for educators at the secondary level, offering workshops in biodiversity, conservation techniques, and the lives and needs of mountain gorillas. Teachers also learn how to prepare instructional programs on these topics.
- Partners in community
But the Fossey Fund’s work doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door. The organization builds strong partnerships with local communities situated close to gorilla habitats.
The critical importance of this type of work cannot be overstated. People in Rwanda and neighboring Congo often establish their population centers very close to protected lands inhabited by gorillas. And Rwanda’s high population density puts the fine point on this situation. With people in the region often depending on the forests near their homes to supply much or all of their needs for food and vital supplies, establishing harmonious interrelationships among people, animals, and the environment is crucial.
When human communities work together, and with the animal populations and the organizations working to save them, everyone benefits.
- Working with respect and engagement
To do this successfully, the Fossey Fund takes a multi-aspect approach. First, it sponsors trips that take community leaders to Volcanoes National Park to see gorillas first-hand, as well as to workshops rich with information about gorilla habitats and the importance of their preservation. These leaders can then take what they’ve learned back to share with others in their communities.
The fund also hosts movie events in nearby villages, drawing thousands of attendees annually. Many of the attendees have never even seen a gorilla in the national park.
The films center on conservation themes, and are followed by Q&A sessions with Fossey Fund staff in cooperation with local community leaders.
Discussions center on the value of preserving wilderness lands and wildlife, with participants taking away helpful information on what they can do to help their own villages, towns, and communities become more sustainable.
- Building an infrastructure of knowledge
The Fossey Fund’s outreach also includes efforts to supply clean, healthy water supplies and meet critical healthcare needs for local human populations. The fund conducts parasite screenings, provides health and hygiene information, and offers disease prevention education.
And, through its donors, the Fossey Fund has provided long-term support to the primary school and medical clinic in Bisate, a local village. Fund efforts have helped build a maternity ward—the first of its kind in Bisate. The fund has also helped construct a new suite of classrooms and install much-needed electrical and plumbing infrastructure.
One of the Fossey Fund’s centerpiece community outreach projects is the construction of a learning center, replete with books, computers, and classroom programs, for the benefit of both children and adults living near Volcanoes National Park.
Housed on the site of the school in Bisate, the learning center is a truly international effort, supported with funding from the Columbus Zoo’s Partners in Conservation program.