Gorilla museum opens in Musanze

Veronica Vecellio, gorilla program and public relations manager at Karisoke, takes guests through the Dian Fossey room. / Moses Opobo

A new exhibit that seeks to tell the story of Rwanda’s mountain gorilla conservation success story has been opened in Musanze.

Named the Karisoke Exhibit, the museum is the brainchild of the Karisoke Research Center, which is run by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI), an international gorilla conservation organization.

DFGFI was established in memory and to carry on the legacy of American zoologist, primatologist, and anthropologist Dian Fossey, remembered worldwide for her efforts to study and protect the gorillas in the Virunga massif that encompasses Rwanda, the DRC, and Uganda. She died in 1985.

In 1967, Fossey had founded the Karisoke Research Center to study endangered primates – a remote rainforest camp nestled between Mount Karisimbi and Mount Bisoke. In tribute to its unique location, Fossey named the center Karisoke.

She was known to locals as Nyiramacibiri, roughly translated as “The woman who lives alone on the mountain.

Today, the center plays an integral role in mountain gorilla conservation efforts in league with other stakeholders.

Guests take in some of the exhibits.
Guests take in some of the exhibits.

The center survived both Fossey’s death in 1985, and the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. Following the genocide, it was destroyed three times before government eventually moved to relocate it to the present site in Musanze town, right opposite the Musanze Pension Plaza.

Here, Dian Fossey’s conservation efforts and legacy continue to thrive.

Gorillas demystified

At the official launch on Friday evening, guests were led on a guided tour of the exhibit, which consists of three sections;

First is the gorilla room, whose main features are two huge exhibits –one of a male human skeleton and the other is of a male gorilla.

Here the genetic similarities between man and primate are explained. One gets to know the differences in physical build between gorilla and man, and between male and female gorilla. Exhibits and notes on the walls further explain the life history of the mountain gorilla, life expectancy, reproduction, and infant mortality.

In one corner of the room stands a wall of fame. Here the names of gorillas that have been killed by poachers over the years are inscribed on the wall, complete with the year of life and death; I managed to catch a few names;

Marchessa (1942-1980;, Effie (1961-1994); Unce Bert (1952-1978); Macho (1961-1971); Digit (1965-1977); and Kweli (1975-1978).

The next room is the Dian Fossey room, where all information pertaining to her gorilla conservation efforts can be found; field notes, book excerpts, field photographs, newspaper printouts …

But the biggest attraction in the room is the small cache of personal belongings retrieved from Fossey’s original site –an old and rustic office table and chairs, a large traditional drum, and a small book shelf –which were all in her private cabin.

Some of the exhibits on display.
Some of the exhibits on display.

The third room is aptly named The Virtual Virunga. In it is a giant three-dimensional visualization of mountain gorillas ranging from data, satellite imagery and topographic map, projected electronically through a bed of sand.

Elsewhere in another room are exhibits depicting the threats to Rwanda’s mountain gorillas, and one of these is beekeeping within park boundaries.

Although entry into the park is prohibited without proper permits, unregulated beekeeping within park boundaries is still a regular illegal occurrence. The traditional method of honey collection entails using fire to chase bees from their hives. Often the fire scathes nearby trees and other vegetation, damaging gorilla habitats.

In another corner one sees exhibits of other other animal species in the Volcanoes National Park.

The Dian Fossey Fund focuses its activities on the two major subspecies of gorillas in Rwanda and the DRC –the mountain gorilla and the Grauer’s gorilla. Mountain gorillas are limited to two populations; the Virunga population estimated at about 480 individuals, and the Bwindi population estimated at 380 individuals. Despite these small numbers, the mountain gorilla is the only subspecies of great ape that is known to be increasing in numbers. It is also one of the most studied ape species.

“Today we officially opened the Karisoke Research Center exhibit and this space is open to tourists and local audiences as well to come and get information on gorillas and conservation, and what is being done by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund,” explained Felix Ndagijimana, the Director for Karisoke Research Center;

“Anyone is welcome between 9:00 am and 4:00 pm weekdays.”

Tara Stoinski, President and CEO of The Dian Fossy Gorilla Fund International, flew in from Atlanta, US for the event.

“It’s a huge honor for us to be here and to be able to have this exhibit to tell people more, not only about the work that we do, but also other important conservation initiatives happening in the Volcanoes National Park,” she explained.

Tara Stoinski makes her remarks during the launch. / Moses Opobo
Tara Stoinski makes her remarks during the launch. / Moses Opobo

“It’s our 50th anniversary working here in Rwanda. Dian Fossey came here in 1967 to study the gorillas, so next September will be 50 years since she established Karisoke, and we’re very proud to have that kind of history here in Rwanda.

Fifteen years ago, we also started working in the DRC, trying to help Grauer’s gorillas which have now been listed as critically endangered.”

Rwanda and the DRC are the only conservation programs the fund runs on the continent. The two operations work with a local staff of 150 dedicated employees; 115 of them in Rwanda and 35 in the DRC –a clear pointer to the organization’s larger presence in Rwanda.

The fund also maintains a skeletal team in Atlanta, US that handles its communications and fund raising.

“We focus on four areas; protection-working with partners in the Rwandan government to provide daily protection to the gorillas, and the second focus is science –we’re very committed to doing science both on the gorillas and also the bio diversity in the park, and we hope that this science can play an important role in determining how we conserve these animals.

The other two areas were we focus a lot of effort is training of young African scientists. We have a partnership with the University of Rwanda where we bring Biology students here at Karisoke and teach them classes on conservation, field methodology and bio diversity, and we also support students to do their thesis work which they need to graduate,” Tara further explained.

“Our last area is working with local communities. For conservation to work it’s important that local communities understand the need for conservation, and also the value of the gorillas and their habitat. We do a lot of work with primary and secondary schools around the park, we work with some of the adult communities showing them conservation movies and bringing local leaders into the park, and we also work on some of the health and livelihood issues.”

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