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Rwanda: A Decade of Field Studies in Conservation

By Fran Silverman

Vedder and Weber
YSE lecturers Amy Vedder and Bill Weber enjoy a moment of forest joy during a visit to Cyamudongo Forest in Nyungwe National Park in 2015. 

One of the smallest countries in Africa, Rwanda is known as the “land of a thousand hills.” While it has few natural resources with economic value for trade, such as minerals and oil, the landlocked country in Central Africa is rich in biodiversity. Its topography features volcanic mountain ranges and parts of both the Nile and Congo River basins. The rugged mountains provide habitat for two of Africa’s most endangered primates — the mountain gorilla and golden monkey.

It was the plight of mountain gorillas in Rwanda that originally drew YSE lecturer Amy Vedder, a conservation ecologist, to the country. Rwanda was struggling to maintain growth in its economy after it declared independence from the colonial rule of Belgium in 1962, relying on coffee and tea as its primary cash crops. Mountain gorillas were heading for extinction in the face of habitat loss and land clearance for cattle pastures and agricultural needs.

Vedder and her husband, Bill Weber, a social scientist and YSE lecturer, were conducting field work for their doctoral degrees at Dian Fossey’s Karisoke Research Station in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. While much of the focus at the research station was on gorilla behavior, the two understood that without an economic incentive to conserve the gorillas, they would remain vulnerable to poaching and habitat loss. Vedder and Weber proposed an ecotourism approach to save the species to the Rwandan national park service — increase revenue by charging visitors to see the gorillas up close. Ecotourism grew and is now Rwanda’s main source of foreign revenue. Since 2005, a percentage of park tourism revenue has been returned to communities located near the parks, with a goal of a total of 10%.  The country has become a model for conservation, designating almost 10% of its land and inland water as protected areas and pledging to restore two million hectares of deforested and degraded lands. 

photo of a silverback gorilla, reclined and looking into the lens
Ecotourism in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda helped save wild mountain gorillas from the verge of extinction. Today there are approximately 700 mountain gorillas in the Virunga mountains.

Throughout the decades, Vedder and Weber have studied the country’s conservation efforts, including immediately before and after the most painful time in the country’s history when in 1994 more than 800,000 Tutsi were killed in a genocide carried out by the Hutu-dominated Rwandan government. Rwanda slowly recovered and with a new government in place, Vedder, who had come to YSE in 2013 as the visiting McCluskey Fellow in Conservation, proposed a field trip to take master’s and doctoral students to Rwanda to see conservation in practice. In June, the 10th group of YSE students will visit Rwanda. Through a partnership with the University of Rwanda and the Smithsonian Institute, YSE students will join master’s and doctoral students from the University of Rwanda for a portion of the three-week field trip through the country.

During their visits, students examine issues of conservation, development, and land management by community groups, NGOs, and governmental agencies. They visit the country’s major national parks — including Gishwati-Mukura and Akagera National Park, where they camp overnight; Nyungwe National Park, a biodiversity hotspot; and Volcanoes National Park, where they see the mountain gorillas and golden monkeys. The students also spend time in local communities bordering the parks to speak directly with residents and observe development and natural resource management efforts.

Golden monkey sitting in the grass
The golden monkeys is one of the many endangered species that have benefited from conservation efforts at Volcanoes National Park. These monkeys live in groups of about 100. This loner takes a break from his troop to enjoy some leaves and shoots.

“What we really want students to see are the complexities, the challenges, as well as the successes of conservation efforts. It’s one thing to be in a classroom and read about theories of conservation, but to be on the ground and see real situations where there are social issues, economics, and existing power relationships at play and see how this country with no oil, no minerals, and no port successfully created interest in conservation is inspiring,” Vedder says.

Protais Niyigaba, park manager at the Nyungwe Management Company in Rwanda, says the field trips provide students with a foundation in conservation strategies in the face of challenges such as financial pressures and staffing needs.

“We give presentations on the real situation on the ground,” Niyigaba says. “Our aspirations and efforts to build a green economy have started producing visible results, from urban wetlands landscape restorations to conservation of key watersheds that the students can learn from.”

Over the years, several students have returned to Rwanda for summer internships and further study.

Yufang Gao ’14 MESc, ’23 PhD, who works to advance biodiversity conservation efforts, was on the first field trip to Rwanda. “This transformative journey illuminated the intricacies of conservation practices within a developing nation like Rwanda, while also igniting my passion for wildlife preservation in Africa,” he says. 

Gao organized a symposium in Rwanda in 2023 about human-wildlife coexistence and led a field trip there for young Chinese conservationists.

In 2018, Yale University signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Rwanda to promote greater cooperation and collaboration on conservation, environmental protection, and sustainable development. In March, Vedder accompanied Yale President Peter Salovey on a visit to the country, where they met with government and environmental leaders and explored avenues of collaboration on sustainability and conservation projects.

“The discussions I (had) on this trip with institutional partners and alumni are helping us to explore how Yale might continue to build networks and establish educational and research initiatives with colleagues across Africa to address global challenges,” says Salovey, who also visited Côte d'Ivoire.

Vedder says the field trips have offered YSE students hope that conservation can prevail even amidst the most challenging circumstances. 

“There are so many negative stories in conservation,” she says. “But in Rwanda, the positive steps have been rewarding and have had major impact. I think that the sense that one can make a difference is a really important take-home.”

Raphael Roca ’16 MESc (left) and Ray Waweru ’16 MEM cut planks from eucalyptus trees at a site outside of Nyungwe National Park during the 2015 YSE field trip. 
Ray examining a chameleon perched on his outstretched finger
Ray Waweru ’16 MEM gets up close with a chameleon at Volcanoes National Park in 2015.
Gao learning how to weave a basket
Yufang Gao ’14 MESc, ’23 PhD learns basket weaving techniques from a community artisan during the inaugural YSE field trip to Rwanda in 2013.
Playing with a kids toy
Children teach Zoraya Hightower ’15 MEM (left) how to play a popular stick game during a visit to a Rwandan village in 2015.