Interview with Dr. Tara Stoinski, CEO of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International


By: Haylee Fisher (@haylee_fisher)

When people think primatologists, the first name to come to mind is usually Jane Goodall. While Goodall is no doubt a major name in the world of awareness and conservation around primates, her work mainly concentrated on chimpanzees. Her peer, Dian Fossey, focused on gorillas and was perhaps the foremost contributor in ensuring public opinion changed about them, which has led to protection efforts surrounding them.

Sadly, Fossey was murdered while doing work in Africa in 1985. However, her legacy still lives on in the foundation that bears her name.

Dr. Tara Stoinski is the President and CEO of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. She recently spoke to Nerd HQ about Fossey in anticipation of the new National Geographic series Dian Fossey: Secrets in the Mist. The show takes viewers to Rwanda on a journey through Fossey’s life and death and speaks to her love of gorillas, and here, Stoinski expands upon those topics and also touches on why we should all be interested in conservation, the Fossey foundation’s continued work, and more.

It’s been over 30 years since Dian Fossey’s death, but her contributions live on through the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, of which you are the President and CEO. What kinds of things does the fund do to ensure her legacy continues?

We continue the work that Dian started 50 years ago, particularly around protection and science, by working in four main areas. Our biggest is direct protection of gorillas. That’s something Dian started doing back in the 60s and 70s and we continue that work and we have for 50 years. We actually protect half of the remaining mountain gorillas in Rwanda and the government protects the other half. Since Dian’s time, we’ve actually expanded over to Eastern Congo and we work with another sub-species of gorillas called Grauer’s gorillas that we’re protecting over there as well. We also continue the scientific study that Dian started, which is originally why she went to Rwanda – to study the mountain gorillas. Now, Karisoke is the world’s longest-running gorilla research site. We’ve now studied more than five generations of gorillas. So we’re still very much doing that active science. It’s not just on the gorillas now; it’s also on the larger biodiversity of the park. We study amphibians and birds and plants and a lot of different topics – much broader than just gorillas. So that is a lot of her direct legacy, but our work has expanded a lot since Dian’s time to include what I call the human dimension of conservation. We do a lot of work around training young leaders of conservation science in Africa. We work very closely with the universities in Rwanda and Congo to bring young African scientists who are interested in biology and conservation to our site to provide them with a background on what we do and also take them out in the field and teach them how you study gorilla behavior, how you monitor an amphibian population, how you determine plant bio-mass in a national park. The other element is working with local communities, particularly in Rwanda where we have very high human population densities right up against the park. These are populations that are still dependent on the park for their livelihood, whether it be to get water or firewood, or they will go in and poach not gorillas, but antelope. So we really work with local populations on education and livelihood and health initiatives so that they’re benefitting from the conservation of the gorillas. Our tagline is actually “Helping People. Saving Gorillas,” because we know that in order to save gorillas, you have to have the support and involvement of the local population.

So y’all do a lot!

[Laughs] We do! We do. We have a staff of 170, and 160 of them are in Africa. Most of them are in Rwanda. We have 115 staffed in Rwanda and then another 45 in Congo, as I said, working with Grauer’s gorillas.

How did you first get involved with the Dian Fossey Foundation; what appealed to you about her work with gorillas?

My background was that I always wanted to be a vet. I didn’t really know about the different options that you could do if you wanted to work with animals. I was lucky enough to go to Africa when I finished my Master’s degree and really fell in love with the idea of coming back and studying animal behavior. I changed over and ended up getting a Ph.D. and have been working with gorillas now for 25 years, and 15 years with the Fossey Fund. For me, working for an organization that was started by a woman who was such a pioneer in her time with what she did in terms of science and conservation, I really feel very honored to be able to continue her legacy and to work for her organization.

National Geographic Channel will be airing a three-part documentary starting tonight about Dian Fossey’s life and death, her research and love of gorillas, and more. Tell me about your involvement in the show.

About two years ago, we really started thinking about the 50th anniversary [of when Dian started her work] and really wanted to have some recognition of this milestone for the organization, but also Dian Fossey has been deceased for 32 years in December, and there are still a lot of people who very much know her work and her legacy, but there’s also a whole generation that is not aware of Dian Fossey and what she accomplished. We started talking to folks, and it was great that National Geographic was interested in telling her story and doing this biography, particularly because they were so critical to her work in the beginning. The funded her research, and they prominently told the story of her research in the magazine, and really landed that work on the international map. So it was very exciting when they wanted to come back and do the series. We helped them with our archival material – because there’s a lot of archival material that’s included in the episodes – and we also talked to them about her legacy and then they filmed part of the show in Rwanda looking at Pablo’s group, which is a group that is descended from group five, which is one of the original groups Dian monitored. So they were out with our team gathering footage of these gorillas that are direct descendants of the ones Dian studied.

That’s really cool!

Yeah, and our [foundation] director, named Felix Ndagijimana, is Rwandan, and is interviewed and it’s included in the third episode as well. He talks about her legacy and what the organization does now on the ground.

For those who may be unfamiliar with her work, the documentary introduces the Karisoke Research Center, a base Dian Fossey established in 1967 in Rwanda to get up close to the gorillas. I know the original building is not still there, but what kind of work happens at what currently serves as Karisoke now?

We haven’t been based in the forest since the mid-1990s, after Rwanda’s genocide. But we are based in a town not far away. So each day, our teams go into the forest, and the vast majority of what our teams do is protect ten families of gorillas. So every single day, we have groups assigned to each of those families and just like you or I check on our family when we get home from work and make sure everyone’s accounted for, we do the same for the gorillas. We know every single gorilla individually. They all have names and their own personalities and they’re all recognizable, particularly by their nose prints. That’s how Dian first started to tell them apart – they each have their own individual nose print like our individual fingerprints. So we check on every individual. If an animal is missing, we go on patrol to find it. If an animal appears to be sick, we’ll notify our partners and vets. A lot of what happens is that everyday monitoring and protection and while those teams are there, they’re also gathering all that critical science we do on gorilla behavior, gorilla physiology, health, and lots of other areas. But our work has also evolved. We have a whole team that does biodiversity monitoring in the park, so monitoring the birds and amphibians. We have our teams that are doing educational outreach, so going into communities or working with communities or schoolchildren to do projects around engaging the local communities. Also, bringing Rwandans up from the university and helping them to design research projects for their senior thesis, taking them into the park and introducing them to that environment, so again, it’s a very active research center. And we have people that come from all around the world to do research with us on the gorillas. That’s also a big part of it – hosting a lot of international scientists that come and are working in the park or are working in other areas around science and conservation.

During her days at Karisoke, Dian employed strong tactics to protect the gorillas from poachers that made her enemies, which viewers will learn more about in the show. How has the relationship between conservationists and the Rwandan community changed over all these years?

I think that’s a great question. First and foremost is the role of the Rwandan government in conservation, which Dian thought at that time, did not support conservation that strongly and that couldn’t be more different now. The government places a huge priority on conservation of the gorillas and the biodiversity of the country in general. It’s a very small, densely populated country and they’ve set aside almost 10% of their land for a national park. They are the leaders in conservation and lead the conservation activities in Rwanda. We very much partner with them. That is amazing and it’s really a huge privilege to get to work in a country that puts such a huge priority on conservation. And then I think the relationship with the local communities has changed as well. During the time Dian was there, people were actively hunting gorillas and that does not happen anymore. Unfortunately there are other animals that poachers will set up snares for and the gorillas can get caught in those snares, but there is no active hunting of gorillas. In fact, sometimes gorillas come out of the park, which means they’re in people’s backyards – there’s no barrier between the park and when you cross out of the park. You’re actually then in human settlements – farms and other areas. When the gorillas come out, they’ll notify our team that the gorillas are out of the park so we can come and be with the gorillas when they’re there and make sure they’re protected when they’re ranging outside the park. And I think a big part of that is the value the gorillas bring to the government of Rwanda. Ten percent of the money they get from tourism they get from people coming to see the gorillas actually feeds back into the local communities, so it’s a revenue-sharing program where the communities living next to the park – which are quite poor communities – are actually benefitting from people coming to see the gorillas and the protection of the gorillas.

Yeah, I wanted to ask about that tourism. I also know there’s an area open to it. What do you think Dian would think of that, especially since she was so fiercely protective of the gorillas?

I think Dian would realize it is an important part of conservation. That tourism definitely plays a critical role in conservation, not just of the gorillas, but that the money that comes and is generated from seeing the gorillas benefits all the conservation in Rwanda. It goes to the three national parks in the country in addition to the park that the gorillas live in. There are always concerns about tourism. We want to make sure that it doesn’t have a negative impact on the gorillas. It’s very tightly controlled. Each family group is only visited by one set of tourists a day for one hour and a maximum of eight people. So I think she would be very happy to see the stringent controls we’ve put into place. It hasn’t become a mass tourism thing, where everyone can walk through the forest and see the gorillas. It’s very tightly monitored and controlled to minimize any impact on the gorillas.

One of the things I am passionate about is women in science and giving girls the opportunity to see successful women in STEM fields so they know they can pursue their dreams, too. What message do you have for those girls who may feel inspired by Dian or you yourself?

I have two daughters and we talk about science and the role of science a lot. I think first and foremost, what I have been so lucky to do is to have a job that is also my passion. And if you’re going to spend the amount of time we spend as adults working, it’s so wonderful to wake up every day and realize that I’m doing what I love and I feel like I’m making a difference. Not just for wildlife, but also for people. The people of Rwanda and the people I have the opportunity to work with, either on my team or in the communities we work with. So I think for me, that’s a really important message I try to give my daughters. And I really do think that Dian Fossey was such a pioneer. When we think about a woman on her own 50 years ago setting off into the wilds of Africa to study a species that, at the time, the popular opinion was King Kong and aggression and ferocious beasts, she really changed the world’s opinion of them. She got to know them as individuals and told their story and really changed what people thought of them and their understanding of gorilla nature, which is much, much more gentle than originally thought. And she also changed the course of history for the species. Many people thought the mountain gorilla would be extinct by the year 2000 and instead, they are the only population that’s increasing. Obviously that’s not just because of Dian’s work – there are a lot of organizations that are involved in gorilla conservation and as I’ve mentioned, the critical role the Rwandan government is in leading all of that, but certainly it started with Dian. I think a lot of times, we are so very overwhelmed with some of the challenges that are facing our planet, and I think Dian is a great reminder of the fact that one person can truly make a difference. So remember that and don’t think, “What is my contribution going to do?” If she had said that, who knows, we might not have mountain gorillas anymore. So this idea that one person can really make a difference is also a really endearing part of her legacy.

Back in 1988, Sigourney Weaver played Dian in the Gorillas in the Mist movie, not too long after Dian’s death, and now almost 30 years later this documentary is coming out, and with Sigourney narrating. Why do you think now is a good time for this story to be told again?

I think the celebration of the 50th anniversary – 50 years is a big milestone for any organization. When you think about the challenges that this organization has faced in terms of losing Dian and then working in a part of the world that faced such a huge tragedy in the 1990s with the Rwandan genocide, I think at any point in time, it would have been very easy for the organization to just not exist anymore. For the work to have stopped when Dian died or in the years after that. But it didn’t. It’s amazing that it’s continued on throughout all of this. So I think the 50th anniversary is a great time to take stock and look back at what she accomplished and what it was like when she was working there, and then what is that longer term legacy. It was wonderful to have Sigourney involved in the production. She reads Dian’s letters and really brings her to life in the piece, which I think is wonderful because she was an incredibly eloquent writer, a very prolific writer, and just to hear her thoughts about what she was doing and what she was seeing, it really feels like she’s another character in the series.

What do you hope is the biggest takeaway for audiences?

I really think it’s a few of the things we touched on. The pioneering role Dian Fossey played in going and doing this work. Her pioneering role in conservation and science. I think she really inspired a whole generation of females to go in to these careers, whether it be as a scientist or a conservationist. I know so many people who are my peers who were inspired by the work of Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall and others, so to tell that story again, particularly to people who might not know it, I think is wonderful. I think also to see her two biggest legacies, with getting to know gorillas as individuals and telling their stories and introducing them to the world and helping the world fall in love with them so that people would care about their future, and then also really starting the active conservation work that was so needed at the time and is the reason gorillas are probably still with us. And then also to see that legacy continues on. If people get that out of the series, seeing what an incredible thing she did and how important her science was and her conservation work was and that her work is still continuing on and her legacy continues, it would be wonderful.

Finally, what can everyday people to do help protect and conserve the gorillas Dian Fossey loved so much?

That’s a great question. There are a lot of things. We always talk about being a supporter. We are an organization that depends entirely on donations and we start every year at zero and have to raise the money we need to do the work in the field. Individuals are actually our biggest source of support. About 60% of our donations comes from individual, single donors that care about our work and care about our mission and some of these people have been doing it for 30 years. That’s what’s enabled us to become an organization that’s made it 50 years. Every person can make a difference. Become a supporter, adopt a gorilla. But for the people who may not have the financial means to do something, or who may want to do something even above and beyond that, I think that now is a really important time to be telling our elected officials that conservation is important and that we want government funding to be make available for conservation. We’re seeing big cuts in a number of these areas, and it’s really important money that comes to our organization from the U.S. government to do conservation work in Rwanda and Congo. I think people can engage our public officials and certainly let them know how important conservation is and that we want this money not just for gorillas, but for elephants and rhinos and other animals that are endangered. Educating people, too. I’m on the road a lot talking about our work and because I pretty much eat, sleep, and breathe gorillas, I’m always surprised to find out that a lot of people don’t realize what’s happening to them on the ground. They don’t get quite as much attention as say, elephants or rhinos, but Grauer’s gorillas, which is the other sub-species we help protect in Congo, we have lost 80% of those animals in the last two decades. We think their population now numbers about 3500 individuals. So it’s more than the mountain gorillas, which stands at 880 for the sub-species, but the trajectory of decline is so fast, that we could lose Grauer’s gorillas from the planet in the next 10 to 20 years. So we need to help people become aware, getting a bigger team of people who are interested in being supporters or being the voice of conservation is really critical, and those are roles everyone can play no matter their age. We’ve had several digital fundraisers and my 9-year-old daughter has been our second largest fundraiser in helping raise money for gorillas. So no matter how big or how small, everyone can play a role.

Dian Fossey: Secrets in the Mist premieres tonight, December 6 at 9/8c. It continues December 13 and December 20.

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