What started as a childhood dream for US comedian Ellen DeGeneres became a reality this week with the opening of the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Rwanda.
Ellen announced the opening during a live broadcast of her TV show.
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is the world's longest serving organisation dedicated to gorilla conservation.
Ellen said it was her childhood dream to be involved in the work of Dian Fossey, her hero.
"I remember reading the National Geographic magazine and seeing this woman in the jungle around gorillas and I was like, 'Oh my God, what an incredible human being'."
The idea for the multimillion-dollar campus started as a special present to Ellen on her 60th birthday from her wife, Hollywood actress Portia DeRossi.
The campus opened to visitors for the first time last Tuesday and offers private tours and a 360-degrees theatre where people can learn more about gorillas. It aims to amplify the Fossey Fund's mission of conservation, protecting and studying gorillas, training the next generation of African conservationists and building conservation capacity of local communities.
Ellen said she hopes to inspire other people to make a difference with other endangered species.
The campus is located outside the Volcanoes National Park at the foot of the Virunga mountain ranges.
The Virunga — straddling Rwanda, the DR Congo and Uganda — and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda are the only known homes of mountain gorillas in the world.
“When I see my name next to Dian Fossey’s on this campus that we built in Rwanda, it’s such an honour. I want her legacy to continue to help the gorillas in Rwanda, which is such a beautiful country," Ellen said.
Rwanda has successfully built sustainable high end tourism around the conservation and tracking of mountain gorillas and hosts the annual now world famous Kwita Izina (gorilla naming) ceremony to introduce new gorilla family members to the world.
The 15-acre Ellen campus has eco-friendly housing for visiting students and researchers as well as a fully equipped research facility for use in advancing gorilla conservation.
“The Ellen Campus represents a huge expansion of our teaching and laboratory spaces, enabling us to not just increase but transform our programmes to study gorillas and their critical forest habitat and bring educational opportunities to early career African scientists and members of the local community,” said Felix Ndagijimana, the Fossey Fund’s director of Rwanda programmes.
Donors include Leonardo DiCaprio, who named a theatre after his mother Irmelin, and a computer lab after his father, George.
Fossey’s life work with mountain gorillas conservation has been immortalised in the movie “Gorillas in the Mist."
“From the outset, the mission of this project has focused on creating a space to engage the many stakeholders in conservation — students, scientists, tourists, conservation partners, community members— to advance our collective goal of saving gorillas and more broadly, the planet,” said Tara Stoinski, the fund’s president and chief scientist.
“It is our hope that people who visit the Ellen DeGeneres Campus will leave inspired to make a difference, just as Dian Fossey did.’’
Fossey feared that mountain gorillas would be extinct by the year 2000. But the population in the region has grown from 250 gorillas in the 1980s to more than 600