By Maria Saporta
Atlanta media pioneer and philanthropist Ted Turner has always had a soft place in his heart for chimpanzees, apes and mountain gorillas.
On Wednesday night, Turner put money where his heart is. He announced a $1 million donation to the Atlanta-based Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International to help save endangered gorillas in eastern Congo.
“Our wonderful friend Ted Turner has stepped up to the plate, and he has given the Dian Fossey Fund the largest gift we have ever received, “ said Clare Richardson, president and CEO of the Fossey Fund, at a press conference at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History. “Ted you are a hero.”
Richardson said Turner actually had traveled to Rwanda, the home of the Karisoke Research Center, to see the gorillas in their native habitat.
“I’ve been interested in endangered species all along,” Turner said at the press conference. “I’ve been watching the work of the Dian Fossey Fund. I just wanted to make a statement. If mankind were to learn to stop killing the great apes, maybe we can stop killing each other.”
In addition to his $1 million gift, Turner also will become the lead spokesman for the Dian Fossey Fund.
Asked why he had decided to take on that role, Turner said: “The objective is to save the apes and their habitats. Let’s have healthy gorillas.”
After the press conference, there was a special viewing of the film — “The Gorilla King” — which tracked the life of Titus, a silver-backed gorilla who had been tracked for more than 30 years.
The documentary highlighted the work of researchers who have been continuing the work of Dian Fossey — a leading scientist who lived among the gorillas to better understand their behavior and social patterns. Fossey, who recently would have turned 80 had she lived, began her work in Rwanda and Congo in 1967.
“I’m proud to be associated with this organization,” Turner said before the showing of the film. “I hope I can be helpful. I love nature and the environment, particularly the gorillas and the mountain apes that are so close to us.”
Other dignitaries also were present for the showing of the film at Fernbank.
Felix Ndagijiman, one of the film’s human stars, has just been named director of the Karisoke Research Center, the first Rwanda national to serve in that role.
Also in attendance was Tara Stoinski, who recently was promoted to vice president and chief scientist for the Fossey Fund. Dr. Stoinski is based at the Fossey Fund’s U.S. headquarters at Zoo Atlanta where she specializes in gorillas who are either living in captivity or in the wild.
Also present was Veronica Vecellio, the Karisoke Research Center’s Gorilla Program Manager. She too played a major role in the film.