Gorillas, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, Ellen, and Azizi Life: The Story Behind Our Latest Collaboration

On her November 4, 2021, show, Ellen DeGeneres was gifted a one-of-a-kind Gorilla Nose Print Basket by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund CEO, Dr. Tara Stoinski.  This basket was created by an expert weaver in partnership with Azizi Life!

CLICK TO WATCH: Ellen chatted with Dr. Tara Stoinski, the President, CEO and Chief Scientific Officer for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. She gave an update on The Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Rwanda and presented her with an Azizi Life basket.

What is a gorilla nose print?  The late Dian Fossey was the world’s leading authority on the mountain gorillas of Rwanda.  As she observed the primates, she noted that each one has a unique pattern of wrinkles on their nose.  Fossey used these wrinkles, known as “nose prints,” as one of the primary identifiers of the gorillas she came to know in her research. The design used for the Azizi Life basket was inspired by the nose print of a Rwandan gorilla named Maggie, who was studied by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund for the entirety of her life and was a favorite of Sigourney Weaver’s when she was filming Gorillas in the Mist.

PHOTO: Maggie and sketch of her nose print used to create the Gorilla Nose Print Bowl design.

Our Ellen Show cameo is just a small part of a progressing story that is happening in Rwanda for gorilla conservation through The Fossey Fund, for endangered species protection through Ellen DeGeneres, and for artisan opportunity through Azizi Life. Here’s the story:

In 2018, Portia de Rossi founded The Ellen Fund as a gift to honor the efforts of Ellen DeGeneres to protect endangered wildlife.  Its first project was to support the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund’s initiative to build a permanent, purpose-built home for their work to conserve gorillas and help the people who share their forest home.  Ellen DeGeneres, Portia de Rossi, and their team visited Rwanda and the Fossey Fund’s headquarters later that year. The trip and coverage of Rwanda created buzz that even benefited Azizi Life through a feature on The Ellen Fund’s Holiday 2020 Gift Guide!

PHOTO:  Ellen and Portia in Rwanda courtesy of The Ellen Fund.

The Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is nestled adjacent to Volcano National Park. The Fossey Fund is the world’s longest-running and largest organization dedicated entirely to the conservation of mountain gorillas.  Their team and programs have grown dramatically since Dian’s time, such that they now host thousands of students, researchers, and tourists each year.  Not surprisingly, their ability to grow and sustain critical conservation work has become limited by both the physical structure of their old building and its location. Source

PHOTO:  Ellen and Portia with the Gorilla Fund team and former building, courtesy of The Ellen Fund.

The new multi-acre, eco-friendly facility has been named as one of the top ten anticipated architectural projects by CNN and will be the headquarters of the Fossey Fund’s programs in Rwanda.   The campus includes an interactive exhibit to educate local communities and tourists; classrooms, a computer lab, and a library to increase opportunities for training the next generation of conservationists; cutting-edge lab spaces for research; on-site residences for visiting students and scientists and…


…an Azizi Life gift shop! Azizi Life will also work with local artisans to offer demonstrations, teaching, and cultural experience days with local hostesses. This partnership with the Fossey Fund will expand Azizi Life’s reach to northern Rwanda, in an area we have never worked.

PHOTO:  Campus photo:  Rendering courtesy of MASS Design Group.

Portia de Rossi shared about the making of Ellen’s passion:

“Many years ago, my wife, Ellen, told me how as a little girl, in New Orleans, Louisiana, she came across the National Geographic with Dian Fossey on the cover. Seeing that brave American woman, a scientist, who left her comfortable life to set up a tent in the Rwandan forest to save a species on the brink of extinction, was transformative for Ellen. It made her see the world differently, and her place within it. Learning about this passionate, committed biologist, and the impact one person can have was the catalyst for Ellen becoming who she is today—a trailblazer—just like her hero, Dian.” source

Azizi Life is no stranger to trailblazers and inspiring women. In fact, the Gorilla Nose Print bowl presented to Ellen was created by a trailblazer from rural Rwanda.

PHOTO:  Yvonne with one of her original Gorilla Print Bowls.

Yvonne Vuguziga is a 28 year old mother of two and the expert weaver who created the Gorilla Nose Print bowl. Yvonne has been weaving since before she could read.  “Weaving runs in my blood,” she says.  All the women in her family are weavers, and many of them weave together in the Abibumbye Cooperative.  

Yvonne’s mother was widowed when she was young and used her sales of bowls to raise Yvonne by herself.  Yvonne would help her mom thread the needles as she wove, and play at imitating her mother in weaving.  At six years old, Yvonne sold her first bowl!  Her mother required her to focus on her studies during the school year, but during breaks, Yvonne wove and helped cover the cost of her own school supplies and tuition.

PHOTO:  Yvonne with her son, Ivan Gift.

Yvonne paused her education when she got married, but she continued to weave to help support her new family.  Weaving helped to build their home and farm, and Yvonne even taught her husband, Sylvain to weave.  Among weavers, not everyone has the gift of teaching others and very few are able to create new designs, but Yvonne has the gift and used that gift to create the Gorilla Nose Print Bowl.

This fall, Yvonne went back to school to finish her education.  Her husband has gotten so good that he was accepted into Yvonne’s weaving cooperative (with her mom and aunties and cousins and neighbors) to participate in weaving bowls for export through Azizi Life.  Yvonne is studying Chemistry and Biology and hopes to become a nurse or a lab technician.

The Fossey Fund has been working closely with its partners, MASS Design Group, to track the impact of the actual construction of the campus.  Through August 2021, this includes:

  • over $7.5 million invested in Rwanda
  • 250,000+ native plants propagated
  • Over 1,200 people employed
  • 27% of the construction team is female with 27% of leadership roles held by women Source

Azizi Life, being Rwandan-owned and women-led, celebrates these milestones with the Fossey Fund. We look forward to connecting with new customers and helping even more people fall in love with Rwanda, its beauty, and its people.

Know someone wild about gorillas? Check out our hand carved Gorilla Ornaments! Such a fun way to bring Rwanda’s unique treasure and artistry to your holiday celebrations.

PHOTO:  Hand carved gorilla ornament hanging on Christmas tree.
PHOTO:  Hand carved gorilla ornament’s face.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.