Fifty years ago, Dian Fossey climbed into the remote mountains of Rwanda to study the area’s endangered gorillas. Today, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI) is using cutting-edge data collection and study tools to further her work and ensure the survival and revival of the species.
Urged on by legendary archaeologist Louis Leakey and her own growing interest in the great apes, Fossey began carefully chronicling the gorillas’ behavior—day after day—for years. Her observations eventually made her one of the most influential primatologists in the world—and made her subjects famous as well.
“What she brought to bear on conservation was the sense that you can’t do it for a little while. You have to be there for a sustained length of time. You must be there all day, every day. It needs to be continuous,” says Clare Richardson, president emeritus of the DFGFI. Fossey’s data, and the attention it brought to gorillas, lends them a distinction both encouraging and alarming: It is the only population of great apes in the world that has grown, doubling in size from 240 to 480 individuals during the past five decades.
“When [Dian Fossey] first went to Rwanda, the popular opinion of gorillas was King Kong, a ferocious beast,” says Tara Stoinski, president, CEO, and chief scientific officer for the DFGFI. “By getting to know each of those gorillas individually, by studying their families and seeing how much they are like us, she was able to change the world’s opinion. Their nickname now is ‘gentle giant,’ which is much more appropriate. She was just one person, but she literally changed the course of history for a species.”
Now, with Oracle’s funding and technology, Rwanda’s great apes are not the only ones who can benefit from Fossey’s legacy of data collection and analysis. Scientists researching a wide range of animals around the globe will also be able to more easily collect and manage the data they need.
A Long-Term Commitment Pays Off
Oracle’s involvement with the DFGFI began after company founder Larry Ellison saw the 1988 Fossey biopic Gorillas in the Mist and was impressed by her life of dedication and sacrifice. Oracle became one of the first US for-profit companies to take a leadership role in the protection of mountain gorillas and is the fund’s longest-term corporate supporter.
“That’s a very long time for a small conservation NGO to be operating, particularly in a part of the world that has faced a lot of challenges. Three decades of support from Oracle has let us be on the ground, day in and day out, that whole time,” says Stoinski. And that continuous presence has been key to the recovery of a species that was once expected to become extinct before the year 2000.
According to Colleen Cassity, executive director of Oracle Corporate Citizenship, working with the fund has also provided an opportunity for three branches of Oracle philanthropy to work together: Oracle Giving supports the DFGFI with cash and technology grants; the Oracle Education Foundation uses data sets from the fund to show students how to extract knowledge from data and visualize it; and Oracle Volunteers coach those classes.
“By working with real scientific field data, the students discover what data can tell them about the real world and then find answers to real-world questions. It’s a beautiful synthesis of three different threads of Oracle’s philanthropy, all focused on developing that next generation of conservationists,” says Cassity.
A New Approach to Wildlife Data Collection and Management
Four years ago, Oracle’s investment in the organization took a new turn. Fund leaders asked Oracle for a technology investment to transform the way its scientists collected and managed data. The resulting effort caused a cascade of changes, empowering not only the fund’s field researchers but also providing a downloadable app that any researcher in the world could use for any animal population, wild or captive. The collaboration also made the fund’s data—the world’s largest, most comprehensive longitudinal collection of data on any wild gorilla population—available to the larger scientific and educational communities.
“We’re an international organization, so having our data in the cloud is great for us because it means that people working in Rwanda can go in and enter that data that day, then scientists can go look at that data and see what they’ve seen and start using it,” says Stoinski.
Before the technology partnership, field scientists wrote their observations in notebooks during the day and then would transfer the data into a computer later—a time-intensive and error-prone process. Now scientists enter data directly into a hand-held tablet and upload to Oracle Database Cloud. “Mountain gorillas are critically endangered. There are about 880 of them left on the planet, so we want to have data in real time that we can use to see if there’s a conservation threat. Having the data up in the cloud really helps,” says Stoinski.
The first part of the project involved moving 50 years of field data into Oracle Database in the Cloud. Oracle Senior Principal Consultant Ritu Srivastava led the development team and worked closely with researchers at the DFGFI’s headquarters in Atlanta, and with systems administrators in Rwanda. First, Srivastava’s team migrated much of the historical data into the cloud, preserving it and making it available for further analysis. During the next phase, Srivastava’s team integrated Oracle R into Oracle Database, providing a platform for scientists to use the open-source R statistical programming language to create sophisticated graphical visualizations—a labor of love for the Oracle team, says Srivastava.
Once the legacy data was in the cloud, the next step was supporting the development of an app for researchers to use while observing the gorillas, enabling them to enter data directly into tablets connected to Oracle Database Cloud. Oracle provided key funding for the app development, which is free on iTunes.
The app isn’t specific to gorillas–it can be modified for use on any animal. “That’s been part of the challenge with other data collection apps,” says Stoinski. “They’ve been designed specifically for one type of animal or one species, and we worked really hard to make this very easy to modify for whatever animal you want to work with.”
Fostering the Next Generation of Conservationists
Beyond empowering scientists, this new data is inspiring the conservationists of tomorrow. “One of the most exciting parts of my job is getting people excited about gorillas, particularly young people,” says Stoinski. “We host every single biology student from the national university in Rwanda at our center every year—we teach classes, take them to see wildlife, show them how to collect conservation data. We also work with groups here in the States and with the Oracle Education Foundation to get young students to understand what’s happening to these animals in the wild.”
What does the future hold? According to Stoinski, “We must continue our on-the-ground protection work—gorillas are among the world’s most endangered animals and so ensuring their long-term survival is still a very important need. In addition, the continued work with the next generation of scientists is the future of conservation, getting them excited about science and how you use science to make real-world decisions. We would like to see that grow and strengthen, particularly for the African students we work with to ensure that they’re getting top-of-the-line mentorship so when they go into positions in their government or other NGOs, they’re really well-equipped to be leaders in their communities.”
“Baba Dioum, a Senegalese conservationist, said, ‘We will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught,’” says Cassity. “That’s why it is so special for us in the Oracle Educational Foundation to help students understand the fund’s work and know the gorillas as unique individuals.” Cassity believes that there’s room in the world for profitable commerce—and also for doing good without reward.
“Gorillas are so like us—98% genetically identical—that they can teach us about ourselves, the world we share, and how we fit into it. We don’t want to live in a world without gorillas.”
Margaret Lindquist is senior director of content for Oracle brand marketing.