Return to Rwanda

F&ES Professors Amy Vedder and Bill Weber have worked on dozens of conservation projects across the globe. But they are best known for their efforts to conserve mountain gorillas in Rwanda, a place where they still bring Yale students every year.

After four decades in the field, F&ES conservationists take students back to where it all began

2015 Study Tour video loop by Jazmine da Costa '17 M.F./M.B.A.
You might be surprised to find one of the world’s foremost experts on mountain gorilla conservation supporting the reintroduction of bison at a conference in Banff National Park in Alberta where they had been extirpated for more than a century.
 
But Bill Weber, a social scientist and lecturer at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) who, along with his wife, ecologist Amy Vedder, is well known for his pioneering work in the Congo Basin, is no stranger to conservation in the American West. As the former head of the North America division of the Wildlife Conservation Society and co-chair of the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative (Y2Y), he is well versed in western conservation challenges, from connectivity to carnivores. The Banff conference was unusual, he says, because it not only focused on bison, but also on Canada’s First Nations and Native Americans, for whom bison are an essential part of their culture.
 
“This is a wildlife recovery project, but it doesn’t happen without cultural recovery and reconciliation,” he said. “And to have that social side of things front and center in conservation — an important message and something we’ve been working on for 30 years — is pretty rare. It’s nice to go from working with indigenous groups in the Congo Basin to First Nations groups and Native Americans here in our own backyard.”
 
For Weber and Vedder, also a lecturer at F&ES who’s worked in 25 countries, incorporating both ecological and social values in conservation is nothing new.
vedder weber yale thenandnow
Their own interdisciplinary team: Weber and Vedder on holiday in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania during their Peace Corps days, 1974 (left); more recently, in Nyungwe National Park during the 2015 F&ES Rwanda study tour (right).
 
“One of the major themes of our work has always been to look at the complexity of systems and to try to reconcile different interests,” said Vedder, who has served as Vice President at the Wildlife Conservation Society and as Senior Vice President at the Wilderness Society. “And that has meant different peoples, different scales, and different needs between conservation and humans. There’s no set formula; there are principles one can follow, but to recognize the complexity of systems and situations has been a major element in our work.”

The two conservationists, who describe themselves as their own interdisciplinary team, have worked on dozens of projects across the globe, from Patagonia’s coastal plain to the Adirondack Park in upstate New York where they currently live. But they are best known for their pioneering efforts to conserve mountain gorillas in Rwanda.
 
We work for wildlife conservation; that’s where we’ve spent most of our careers. But people have always been part of that for us.
— Bill Weber
Vedder and Weber’s first glimpse of wild mountain gorillas came in 1978 as graduate students working at Dian Fossey’s Karisoke Research Station in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, the then-epicenter of mountain gorilla research and conservation. At the time, relatively little was known about mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei), a critically-endangered subspecies of eastern gorilla that lives in the cold, dense rainforests of the Virunga massif, a collection of eight volcanoes that runs the spine between Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
 
Following in the footsteps of the pioneering biologist George Schaller, Fossey focused her research on gorilla behavior. But Vedder and Weber took a different approach. Vedder was interested in gorilla ecology, and Weber wanted to better understand local perceptions and attitudes toward gorillas. Beyond simply conducting research, however, the young couple were intent on developing methods to conserve gorillas, whose numbers had declined by 40 percent since Schaller’s time.

Vedder and Weber, who had served as Peace Corps volunteers in Zaire (now the DRC) in the early 1970s, understood the challenges of doing conservation in a developing country like Rwanda. They knew that without an economic incentive to protect gorillas, the animal remained vulnerable to poaching and habitat loss. And in contrast to Fossey, who Weber says believed Rwandans incapable of managing gorilla conservation efforts, they firmly believed that local people and national institutions were essential to ensuring the long-term viability of the species.

“We work for wildlife conservation; that’s where we’ve spent most of our careers,” Weber said. “But people have always been part of that for us.”

Faced with a European-funded proposal to take one-third of the park for a cattle-raising project, the two had a novel idea: charge tourists to see gorillas in their natural habitat. These days, ecotourism generates an estimated $600 billion worldwide, but in the late 1970s the notion that foreign tourists would pay good money to trek high in the rainforest just to see gorillas seemed outlandish.
 
“We were laughed at by the tourism advisors at the time,” Vedder said.
 
In discussions with Rwandan officials, Weber predicted that gorilla-based tourism could generate more than $100,000 a year. He was wrong. Today gorillas are the economic engine of the country. In a nation where the per capita income hovers just above $1,700, gorilla-based tourism annually earns more than $14 million dollars in direct revenue, while contributing more than 10 times that amount to Rwanda’s national economy.
 
“We had just taken a big leap of faith, holding off the big cattle raising project and believing that tourism was an alternative,” Weber said. “But, really, we couldn’t be sure it would succeed.”
 
By all accounts, the Mountain Gorilla Project (succeeded by the International Gorilla Conservation Programme) — which included park staff training, public awareness programs, and local enterprise development in addition to the ecotourism — has been remarkably successful, and not just commercially. In a country haunted by poverty and violence, gorillas have become a source of renewed Rwandan identity and pride. There’s a national festival organized to name every new baby gorilla, and gorilla numbers have more than doubled in the past 40 years. And Rwandans direct and manage their own national parks, tourism companies, and local conservation organizations. Vedder and Weber insist this has been critical to the overall success.
 
Vedder notes that the process of how conservation is implemented is vitally important, especially in places where there are deep, systemic conflicts. People are much more willing to understand and accept policy decisions that may not be in their individual interest if they feel that their voice was heard and that the process was legitimate, she says. Still, Weber cautions that even the best-intentioned process rarely results in a win-win solution.
 
“We’re maybe more of the ‘win more-lose less’ school,” he said. “There’s a lot out there that’s being taught that’s very helpful as a target, but it’s awfully difficult under any particular set of circumstances to apply it.”
  • Vedder takes mid-day rest session notes on the behavior of "Group 5" in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda.

  • Bill talks with Bideli, a former neighbor, at the edge of Volcanoes National Park on a recent visit. Bill has conducted multiple surveys to understand changes in local attitudes toward the park. One of Bideli's sons works in a porter's cooperative, benefitting from the tourism program Vedder and Weber started.

Vedder and Weber chronicled their African odyssey in their 2001 best-selling book, “In the Kingdom of Gorillas.” In it they describe intimate encounters with gorillas, their tense relationship with Fossey, and efforts to conserve Rwandan wildlife and wildlands. The book also addresses the 1994 genocide during which as many as 800,000 people, including many of their close friends, were killed.
 
But despite the challenges of working in Africa, Weber says it’s often harder to do conservation work in the U.S.
 
“In many critical ways, the challenges facing developing countries completely outweigh and overwhelm what we face in this country, but it’s a more direct set of steps you can take to have an impact on actually dealing with that problem,” he said.
 
Said Vedder: “I think one of the huge challenges in the U.S. is the growing distrust of government, which we certainly saw play out in the election recently. Anything that relies on government decisions, government control, government management raises a particular challenge in the United States. It’s certainly not brand-new, but it’s really reached a head.
 
“Conservation of wild areas and wildlife in particular requires a scale of operation in space and in time that is usually not simply local. If people have doubts about national and international governance systems, then you’re in a quandary. And that’s a real challenge for us,” she said.
 
In the decades since leaving Rwanda, Vedder and Weber have pursued a host of conservation projects, both domestically and abroad, including considerable board work for conservation NGOs. But along with their rising careers came less time spent in the field engaging with the animals and people who first inspired them.
 
“We’ve gone from field research to starting projects to implementing them to management positions at high levels and eventually really high levels in NGOs. And we left that,” Vedder said. “We wanted to move back to the field and pay it forward through teaching and working with young people.”
 
“We went back to Rwanda. We got back in touch with things happening on the ground,” Weber said. “And then we came to Yale!”



   
 
Vedder and Weber are currently cultivating the next generation of conservation practitioners at F&ES. The former McCluskey and Bass fellows teach two spring term courses where they share advice and lessons learned over nearly four decades in the field. And for three weeks each May they take a select group of graduate students to Rwanda where they see gorillas — and many other tropical species — in their natural habitat. The tour also exposes students to the challenges of doing conservation in Africa’s most densely-populated nation and one of the poorest in the world.
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2016 Study Tour Group.   (Standing, L-R) Students Laura Calderon, Martin Becker, Ana Lambert, Rachel Gulbraa, and Samantha Garvin. (Front) Amy Vedder.
“One of the underlying themes of the trip is to examine the question: in a country so tremendously challenged by underdevelopment, poverty, high population, low education levels, high agricultural dependence on land; all of those challenges — and then you throw in the genocide — how could one ever expect conservation, this sort of luxury item, to take hold? And it has taken hold in a very significant way,” Vedder said.
 
“This experience allowed me to see firsthand the challenges of preserving wildlands and wildlife in a very complex setting where land scarcity and poverty are the norm,” said Laura Calderón ’17 M.E.M., a participant on last year’s tour. “It was an opportunity to see that doing successful conservation in these settings is possible, but not easy, and that there is not a single recipe for success.”
 
The tour is structured to expose students to a range of perspectives. They meet with NGOs, government officials, and community members, visit local cooperatives and museums, and trek and camp in three national parks: Nyungwe, a mid-altitude montane forest renowned for its high biodiversity; Akagera, a savanna still recovering from the civil war and genocide; and Volcanoes, home of the famous mountain gorillas.
 
“Students we encounter are often concerned and depressed that things aren’t working out, but what makes it into the academic press are critiques,” Vedder said. “This is important in stimulating ideas and challenging notions, but I think it’s really important for students to get out in the field and see there are a lot of efforts that are also showing promise.”
 
“On this study tour, I was able to see modern conservation happening in real time, imperfect, but ever striving to improve, to be more inclusive, to return benefits to local people, and to protect wildlife,” said Samantha Garvin ’17 M.E.Sc. “To meet these conservation practitioners was incredibly humbling.”
Video by Rachel Gulbraa, created during the 2016 Study Tour.
Vedder and Weber work hard to create a diverse student tour group. Last year’s group of five collectively held passports from seven countries. Moreover the group is designed to reflect a diversity of student interests. Some have prior experience with on-the-ground wildlife conservation while others are interested in sustainable community development or conservation financing.
 
“There’s an iconic notion of the conservationist out there alone, wandering the wilds, climbing the mountain or canoeing up the remote river; this lone hero,” Vedder said. “The truth is you’ve got to have people with different interests, different backgrounds, be open and collaborative, and co-generate ideas and solutions. And when that co-generation happens, you really have the opportunity to make a difference.”
It’s not just putting science and art together; it’s having the two pieces change each other and change the outcome.
— Amy Vedder
“Our field has gotten a lot better at multi-disciplinary work, but we have a long way to go to truly interdisciplinary work, where information is taken in, not just presented side by side — how do you create a synthesis out of it?” Weber said. “That’s part of the art of conservation. There’s the science of conservation, but the art of blending,  synthesizing, and communicating is really critical, too.”
 
“It’s not just putting science and art together; it’s having the two pieces change each other and change the outcome,” Vedder said.
 
Students say a highlight of the tour is seeing gorillas thriving under Rwandan management.
 
“Everywhere we went, everyone knew Amy and were really appreciative of her,” said Rachel Gulbraa ’17 M.E.M. “It was really clear she’s passed along the baton to local people’s hands.”
 
“In the conservation field that is driven so much by crisis, I found that this project was driven by hope that these two young scientists held for the gorillas' recovery,” Garvin said. “To see these magnificent creatures and to know that Amy and Bill had the nerve, the knowledge, and the courage to advocate for their survival, was truly inspirational. It all makes me think that this work, my work, can make a difference.”
 
“This field trip transformed my career trajectory and the way I want to pursue my life,” said Ana Lambert ’17 M.E.M. “The natural beauty of Rwanda impressed me, but ultimately I was enthralled with the effort and determination shown by its people to work towards a better future.”
 
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PUBLISHED: January 1, 2000
 

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