Over the past four decades, Weber has done pioneering conservation work across the planet, including in the American West, but it is for this work that he is perhaps most well-known. And, he says, it was the conservation principles that he helped introduce in Africa, including several years in Rwanda, of which he is proudest. In 2001, Weber and Vedder published a best-selling book, “In the Kingdom of Gorillas
,” which chronicled their efforts to conserve Rwandan wildlife and wildlands.
Last week Weber, who is now a social scientist and lecturer at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, was among 31 conservationists nominated for the prestigious Indianapolis Prize
, a global award that recognizes conservationists for achievements in advancing sustainability of an animal species or group of species.
Recently, we chatted with Weber about his work in Rwanda and about the growing recognition that any successful wildlife conservation project must also consider the impacts on local people.
You and Amy have spent so many years working on mountain gorilla conservation in the Congo Basin. What do you consider the legacy of that work?
In the mid- to late-1970s, everyone was writing off the mountain gorilla. They were on their way to extinction, it was thought, and groups didn’t even want to put money into funding conservation because population numbers were getting so low. One thing I brought to the gorilla equation — and which was very rare in conservation at the time — was the idea that people, particularly local people, had to be a central part of the equation. You couldn’t just focus on animals, and you couldn’t just focus on their habitat. You had to realize that local people were living around and among some of the world’s most endangered areas and species. So you really had to go out and do research on their interests, needs, aspirations, attitudes — and then build conservation action around that information.
Also, we were able to use our research to convince the government that there was enough habitat for the gorilla population to survive and even increase their numbers. As a result, they put off clearing more of the park for a cattle-raising project, which allowed us to start what was called ‘the Mountain Gorilla Project.’ That was the beginning of what we would now call an ecotourism program focused on gorillas — though, at the time, we weren’t clever enough to think of the word ‘ecotourism.’
How did it work?
Weber: It’s a program that brought in small numbers of people — a maximum of eight people for one hour a day — to sit and hang out with a family of one of our closest non-human relatives. It continues to this day and has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars. Before I started the project in August of 1979, during the preceding year the park brought in a little more than $7,000. Now the park makes about $20 million per year, almost entirely because of the gorillas.