Editor’s note: This commentary was written by Dr. Tara Stoinski, CEO and chief scientist of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is celebrating a quarter-century headquartered in Atlanta. From our modest offices nestled behind the orangutans at Zoo Atlanta, we’ve had a major global impact.
We’ve seen mountain gorillas – the “gorillas in the mist” that we study and protect – beat Dian Fossey’s own dire prediction that they would be extinct by 2000. Atlanta has been key to that success.
When we moved to Atlanta in 1995 at the invitation of the zoo’s then-CEO Terry Maple, mountain gorillas’ future was uncertain. Their Rwandan home was still recovering from the genocide. But the trackers and scientists at our Karisoke Research Center never left the gorillas, and we found a committed conservation partner in Rwanda’s new government.
Since then, with daily monitoring and protection, the tiny mountain gorilla population has nearly doubled. We recently we saw them upgraded from critically endangered to endangered – back from the brink of extinction.
In those 25 years, we took a big step to expand beyond Rwanda and began working in Democratic Republic of the Congo to protect the Grauer’s gorilla – the mountain gorilla’s close cousin.
The Grauer’s population has declined an estimated 80 percent since the mid-1990s. They’re on the road to extinction without major intervention. We’re working directly with communities to protect 330,000 acres of their Congo Basin habitat, the lungs of the planet that help slow the rate of climate change.
The Atlanta City Council recently proclaimed Gorilla Appreciation Day to honor our 25-year milestone, but the gratitude is ours. Atlanta provides an environment teeming with opportunity for a global nonprofit.
The city’s strength in higher education has allowed us to forge valuable research partnerships. We’ve had a more than 15-year partnership with Georgia Tech – where I earned my Ph.D. – to map and analyze gorilla movements and have collaborated with staff and students from Emory University to study aspects of the health of gorillas and the overall ecosystem. In 25 years, we’ve authored nearly 150 peer-reviewed scientific articles and books on everything from gorilla behavior to biodiversity to conservation equity.
We have also benefitted from Atlanta’s vibrant philanthropy and business community. In addition to enjoying support from notable Atlantans such as Ambassador Andrew Young and Ted Turner, we are supported by many in Georgia, some of whom have visited the gorillas and our offices in Rwanda. Zoo Atlanta and Kilpatrick Townsend have both provided critical in-kind support since our arrival, enabling us to dedicate more resources to our mission.
The media hub Turner established provides outlets to share our conservation expertise. As someone who spent a lot of pre-pandemic time at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and has Delta Diamond Medallion status, I am personally grateful for proximity to that global crossroads. It’s enabled us to move staff between the United States and Rwanda to study and teach, as well as visit zoos and supporters across America.
Atlanta’s civil rights history has influenced us as well. As we watched racial justice protests over the summer in the city that Martin Luther King Jr. called home, we reflected on our longstanding commitment to equity – and looked for ways we can do better.
As we consider the importance of strong communities, we celebrate the one we call home.
We’ve provided scholarships for more than 50 African staff, and more than 3,000 African undergraduates have gone through our capacity-building programs. Over 120 of Rwanda’s best undergraduates have conducted their senior thesis projects with us and are now publishing their work.
And most importantly, 85 percent of these individuals go on to careers in conservation and science, building the next generation of conservation leaders in the region. Next year in Rwanda, we plan to open our Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, a research and education facility to empower more African conservationists and build a knowledge-based economy.
Conservation depends on building strong human communities around gorilla habitats. Our motto, “Helping People, Saving Gorillas,” reflects our people-centered approach, which focuses on developing food and water security, livelihood and education programs for both children and adults.
As we consider the importance of strong communities, we celebrate the one we call home. Murakoze cyane (that’s “thank you” in Kinywarwandan), Atlanta! Here’s to more years of innovative partnerships to save gorillas and change the world.
By Dr. Tara Stoinski is CEO and chief scientist of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund