"It amazes me to think of a woman setting off into a forest in a foreign country in the 1960s on her own," says Tara Stoinski. She's referring to Dian Fossey, the late American anthropologist who went to Rwanda alone to study gorillas 50 years ago. "She wasn't even trained as a scientist at the time," Stoinski adds. "But she uprooted her life to go study an animal, which was perceived as this big, scary beast, like King Kong. She changed the trajectory for that species."
Stoinski is the president, CEO, and chief scientific officer of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, and she's giving me a tour through a re-creation of the original Karisoke Research Centre, Fossey's former home and research base, which was started in the Volcanoes National Park in 1967. Today, the Karisoke Research Centre (which has relocated to a bright-white building in Musanze, Rwanda) still serves as a research base and the headquarters for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. Inside, there is also a museum that pays homage to Fossey's key findings and showcases items from her former home and work base.
Without Fossey's aggressive work, for which she dedicated her life to studying and protecting gorillas, it's almost unquestionable that they'd be extinct. The gorilla population is still at risk, but when Fossey first moved to Rwanda, they were under even greater threat. "To go on your own to a place like Rwanda — which was fairly unknown to many Americans at the time — and live by yourself at 10,000 feet in really harsh climatic conditions to study these animals is really amazing," Stoinski says. "And then, to face the challenges with the poaching of gorillas — that's emotionally devastating."
Fossey became prominent following an article she wrote for National Geographic in 1981 about the loss of her favorite gorilla, Digit, who was killed by poachers. "It was Digit, and he was gone," Fossey writes. "The mutilated body, head and hands hacked off for grisly trophies, lay limp in the brush like a bloody sack." Losing Digit devastated Fossey, and so following his death, she set up the Digit Fund to protect and monitor gorillas.
Today, the fund (now called the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund) has 170 employees working closely with the Rwandan government and park authorities to preserve and monitor the animal. At the helm of this organization is Stoinski, who, with her tumbling brown hair and visionary work, could be likened to Fossey herself. A scientist who studied animal behavior and never intended to focus on gorillas, Stoinski has found herself working with them for 23 years. "I can't imagine working with anything else," she reflects.
Stoinski spends a large portion of her time traveling to promote the fund and Fossey's legacy, especially this year, for the fund's 50th anniversary. By the end of 2017, she will have been to more than twenty cities and three continents to give lectures on Fossey and how the fund is continuing her legacy.
Stoinski — a single mom of two daughters — says her work certainly has its challenges. "It's not easy, but I feel privileged to be making a difference," she says. "I'm lucky that my daughters understand and that I have a great support system that enables me to do this." Even after losing her husband, the thought of giving up on the organization, the gorillas, and the people she had been working with for over a decade felt unimaginable. At a moment when she could've thrown in the towel, she chose to continue her work with the organization. "I am the most public face, but there are over a hundred people in Rwanda that are out there every day, protecting the gorillas, working with local communities, helping to train young scientists. It's a village effort," Stoinski says. "When Dian was there, she did not have a large team and the active support of the park service like we do today."