Postcolonial Gorilla Conservation

An Interview with Ecologist Sarah Sawyer

What do we know about what it takes to save gorillas?

Habituating gorillas so they can tolerate tourists can help keep them safe. There’s some data from the tourist groups in Rwanda, which suggests gorillas near tourism have higher birth and lower death rates. During the Rwandan genocide, researchers were evacuated but the guards stayed without pay. They felt an ownership and pride in taking care of the gorillas, which helped them stay protected. On the other hand, in areas where gorillas are hunted, habituation can actually put them more at risk by decreasing their avoidance of people.

How are gorillas habituated to scientists and tourists?

Habituation is a long and slow painful process that can include attacks and the gorillas running away all the time. With some gorilla groups, people have had to go and come back. But there’s been research tourism for a while now and many habituated gorilla groups seem to hardly notice it anymore.

Aren’t you supposed to keep your distance from the gorillas?

We are supposed to stay at least five meters away from them, and try not to interact, but when they come over it’s better to have no movement. Same thing with tourists — they are supposed to stay away. The protocol is to slowly back away and make submissive noises. Gorillas practice ritualized aggression. They don’t want to rip you open. They want your submission.

What is like to study gorillas with genocide and war going on around you?

In Uganda, there were a lot of local people working in gorilla tourism and conservation. Tourists pay $500 for two hours to see the gorillas, so conservation had buy-in. The conservation work was run by the government and felt more like a positive collaborative experience, and less like a top-down colonial imposition. In the other places, including some areas of Cameroon, some parks were run by government staff from far away, while others were run by international NGOs. Talking about conservation there felt totally wrong because the local people felt like conservation was simply a way to rob them of their resources. Talking to them about conserving gorillas was not talking to them in their own language. This reminded me of what I had read in grad school about conservation as neocolonialism.

What was your work like in Cameroon?

Where I conducted my work, most of the villages relied on subsistence hunting. For the locals, it makes more sense to hunt and eat wildlife than to conserve them, so the animals avoid people. Only very rarely did you see the gorillas. They are terrified of humans, which helps keep them safe. I was just following poop and nests and trails. Many species had been largely hunted out, and, as a result, it’s a silent forest. There are porcupine, maybe sustainable or maybe not, but that was all that was left in any great number.

Occasionally there are forest elephants. They are often overaggressive from having recently escaped poachers, who had killed relatives. They hate people and will chase you everywhere. I was once chased by one that charged me. It lifted its trunk and blared its trumpet, just like you’d imagine.

Did you get help from the local authorities?

There’s no support or infrastructure in these areas. No education or health. I watched a woman carried out on a stretcher in labor and died en route because it takes three days to get somewhere on foot. The lack of infrastructure means ecotourism is not an option.

What do the locals think of conservationists?

It was clear that the local populations were not on board, and there was no support for conservation. There was no government presence. Many areas are managed by international NGOs. In those instances you have whites managing protected areas.

While I got used to being called “white man,” both in Cameroon and other countries, at my field site we were called “conservation” instead, in a very derogatory way. And it hurt. “We don’t want conservation here,” they would say

One time I was walking along a trail and I heard screaming. What had happened was a man had heard a white person was coming and threw his gun and machete away and accidently cut his toe off. All from fear of me!


Another time my research assistant told the government that his neighbor killed an elephant (which is illegal). When law enforcement came they were bribed, and then my assistant was ostracized for being a snitch. There’s also no consistent funding source. The idea of conservation local people held was that you get kicked off your land and you get no money.

How does resource extraction work in the villages?

In some cases, village chiefs make deals with resource exploiters, with the exploiters paying the chief often much less than the resource is actually worth. One main extracted resource is the tree species that grows straight and makes good walking sticks and poles for fences. It’s at risk from unregulated harvest.

How did things turn out?

When I arrived the Reserve where I was working was being discussed as deserving extra protection. When I left, it was being discussed as a potential logging concession.

Why was Uganda different?

I think perhaps part of the reason is because in Uganda there was not that same colonial legacy hanging over conservation, due to the expulsion of people during the rule of Idi Amin. In some ways Uganda started afresh with a new national identity and developed more organically. But in Francophone Africa, with its continuing colonial legacy, there has been this ongoing a battle for the control of resources.

How have your views on conservation in Africa changed?

When I first got in this I thought “find the most vulnerable areas and protect them.” Now I see that it might not be a lost cause, but in many places, conservation is the last priority. Uganda made me optimistic because I could see in what situations it was a beneficial thing and could work, and I saw the other side where it’s a negative thing if you try to push and you could do a lot of harm. You have to be careful what situations you try to conserve. The places where you can get the biggest bang for the buck aren’t always the places where things work.

You mean, where things are cheapest is also where you can’t get things done?

Right. I thought you can’t lose species from the planet, but then you ask, “Is it worth saving this species at the cost of the social, political, and economic cost on the human side? Or do we say that we hope the species makes it but there are other priorities in this area right now.” That’s the thing about conservation – we don’t want to accept triage. We are uncomfortable about triage. It’s not politically acceptable.

Do conservationists think about development in the right ways?

Conservation biology went through a phase where it tried to link everything to development. But then development led to more development, which, in turn, led to more resource exploitation, and there was a backlash. Now it’s a mixed bag. Everyone recognizes need for development, but it has to be linked to protection of resources. Ecotourism is still one of the only cases of direct link between conservation and economy. We need more linkages.

Sarah Sawyer is an ecologist working on issues of applied science for resource management. She received her PhD in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, studying gorilla ecology and conservation. Before that she worked on multiple primate research and conservation projects in Africa. She has great passion for balancing resource exploitation and conservation, through good use of science and multiple-use objectives, and her work spans from California to equatorial Africa.