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Saving Gorillas, Benefitting Communities

March 27, 2013

Kingdom of Gorillas Webber Vedder Cover ImageEcotourism has always been a popular pastime. People enjoy getting up close to wild animals and experiencing what nature has to offer. Nevertheless, the earth's spectacular habitats are constantly under threat.

Bill Weber, a wildlife conservationist and co-founder of the Mountain Gorilla Project in Rwanda, has devoted his life to this cause. During a lecture at The Fletcher School on March 27 entitled Gorillas & Elephants, People & Parks: Lessons in Conservation and Conflict from Central Africa, Weber recounted his remarkable story that began more than four decades ago with a commitment to studying and protecting the gorillas of Rwanda while also bringing desperately needed ecotourism revenue to the country.

A pioneer of the ecotourism movement and co-author of In the Kingdom of Gorillas, Weber lived in Africa for almost a decade climbing mountain forests, meeting and observing gorilla families, and tirelessly working to protect these gorillas and their habitat by empowering Rwandans to care for their forest.

Weber and his wife Amy Vedder went to Rwanda in the 1970s, owing to their interest in broadening their understanding of African institutions, languages, and culture. They also hoped to learn more about the social bonding of gorillas and the connection of female gorillas with their offspring.

Weber noticed to his dismay that the gorilla population was declining rapidly and the region was experiencing habitat loss. Weber said that there was no coherent conservation science or applied social science – nothing in rainforest Africa – geared toward conservation purposes. Because of the fall in the gorilla population, wildlife funds were also drying up. The local farmers, facing challenges in their own livelihoods, were less inclined to care about the gorillas. In Weber’s words, it seemed like a gloomy picture in a region blessed with incredible wildlife and natural beauty and a somber reminder of how the extreme biological wealth was surrounded by rampant human poverty.

Weber, a social scientist, and his wife Vedder, a biologist, took a multidisciplinary approach to conservation, aspiring to turn around the bleak situation. Vedder focused on the animals’ needs while Weber attempted to find ways to get local population involved in conservation. They founded the Mountain Gorilla Project aimed at providing support to both the gorillas and the local population. It worked towards slowing down the destruction of forests to create farmland, while also attracting tourists to visit the mountain gorillas. Linking the preservation of the gorilla habitat with new economic opportunities proved successful in disincentivizing the clearing of land for agriculture.

Moreover, his perseverance attracted a fresh flow of funds as the wider world started to take notice of the project as a model for community-based conservation. Weber pointed out that the majority who once had been opposed to his ideas later began to understand the importance of maintaining parks and conserving gorillas. People saw their communities benefitting from tourism and similarly began to place higher value on the park, leading to a virtuous cycle of conservation and economic growth.

The success story of wildlife conservation hit a major roadblock during the Rwandan civil war when infrastructure was destroyed and many people with whom Weber worked disappeared or were killed. Over time, however, the economy and tourism did again pick up.

Weber also talked about the Congo Basin Program that has helped establish nearly twenty new protected areas and produced the first reliable data on forest elephants. Prior to this program, estimates of the elephant population ranged from 20 thousand to 2 million from wholly unreliable data. Having an accurate estimate of the elephant population was necessary in order track the levels of poaching for ivory and to press for an effective ban of the ivory trade, which is fueled largely by demand in China. Through the Congo Basin Program, alliances with local communities and other partners have been established, aiming to put an end to the illegal hunting of elephants.

Article by Sachin Gaur, MALD Candidate F13