How did you get involved in this field?
I started doing work in Zaire [now the Democratic Republic of the Congo], in the early 1980s working at the Lomako Forest Bonobo Research Station of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Later, between 1987 and 1990, I ran a project to conserve chimpanzees, using tourism as a way to generate support for conservation. What was unique about the project was that we habituated the chimps for research and tourism without providing them with food. That worked well, but then war broke out with rebellion against [then-president] Mobutu, and all tourism was put on hold. Eventually I became Director of Programs for the International Gorilla Conservation Program, IGCP, a collaboration of three conservation NGOs, in partnership with the park authorities of the three countries.
What are the most important lessons you have learned in 25 years of doing this work?
First, gorilla conservation occurs within the context of economic development for the region. The threats to wildlife and natural habitats come from people, directly or indirectly. And therefore you need to work with people. It’s not just a lack of knowledge that leads to habitat destruction. Conservation education and raising people’s awareness will alone not solve the problem. People are trying to earn their livelihoods, whether locals or firms from abroad, and so conservation has to make be justified in those contexts. And if you are working in areas that straddle boundaries, then you need a trans-boundary approach.
Conservation needs to work over the long-term. Often your donor will say, “We want to see this or that this year.” You thus have to focus on measurable outcomes, and you often don’t have the time or resources to build solid foundations for long-term success. That very quickly fed into the development of the IGCP program. You need partners who have a long-term view and will prepare the foundation for future success.
What is generalizable from gorillas conservation to conservation more broadly given that people are willing to spend $750 to see them?
Tourism as a tool for conservation is a good strategy. Gorillas are unique in their ability to sustain non-consumptive use (through tourism), and as such they are a very valuable economic resource and are worth a huge amount of money. Not every species would be as effective a “tourism destination” as gorillas. In part this is because gorillas don’t move around as much as many other species, and therefore are easier to watch by people on foot (who may not all be terribly fit). It’s much harder to do that with chimps — you need a more athletic tourist that is able to run to keep up with them.
There are many national parks in Africa where there is real tourism potential, but there are also many places that cannot be visited as easily by tourists, or have as much wildlife or iconic species. I worry that we put so much emphasis on tourism (or other forms of income generation) as the key way to generate support for conservation, and therefore indicate that conservation has to be a viable economic activity. Some conservationists emphasize the economic values of conservation over other values.
How has conservation changed?
I started with an interest to work with animals not people, but as I gained more experience, I realized that if we want to protect wild places and wild creatures, we need to work with people and change behavior as well as values and attitudes. Many of my colleagues went through a similar process. Nowadays, there is so much experience of conservation taught at the university. By the time scientists go into fieldwork they know it’s about understanding human changes to landscapes. There was less emphasis on that when I was a student, but even back then, ecology and zoology presented a spectrum of different areas of work. I had two colleagues when I was just starting out (in the Lomako Forest) who were very wise in terms of understanding what is needed and how to address the challenges that these wild places (and species) faced.
How has the situation in Virunga National Park changed?
In the early 1990s, there was significant national government commitment to the national parks. The areas were intended to have thriving ecosystems with some areas for tourism and some not. There was also, of course, the desire as exists in every country to generate as much revenue as possible. But there was also a commitment to conservation goals. When there was poaching of hippos and elephants in parks, there were strong efforts by the park authorities to bring that under control.
Did the wars change all of that?
War made conservation difficult because the government simply wasn’t in control of the east of the country and people were facing very extreme circumstances. It was dangerous to be in the forest. Although there was always a desire to see the parks as revenue-generating, the state had little ability to stabilize the threats. Charcoal production, deforestation, the movement of militias, and poaching were all huge threats. It would have required a significant investment by ICCN [National Congolese Institute for Conservation], but they couldn’t send staff out because it was so insecure. Since the situation has become somewhat more stable, there has been a shift to a more extractive approach to the parks, with less emphasis on conservation than extraction. This is of course a generalization, with many exceptions to that rule, and with people who are very serious about conservation.
Did this shift start with the hiring of Emmanuel de Merode as Park Director?
The shift was before Emmanuel. He worked on a program to counter the threats and protect the park with EU funding when he was working with the EU. The EU had been putting money into the park starting in approximately 1992. He then joined the ICCN to really try to protect the park. Most of the forces threatening the park came from outside the ICCN. They included the killing of elephants, charcoal production, overfishing in the park, people moving in and establishing villages in the park, and putting enormous pressures on the park, and potentially killing gorillas. There was no rule of law, the park staff was not being paid their salaries, they had dysfunctional equipment, and they couldn’t counter the rebels.
Was it the killing of four gorillas in 2007 that triggered a shift in the approach to the park?
There wasn’t any one moment where the world woke up and said, “This is a problem,” but when those gorillas were killed, people paid a lot of attention. This came as something of a surprise to many of us. After all, the human rights community had already revealed that 5 million people had been killed in the wars, and there was barely an eyebrow raised about this tragedy. It was interesting to see what the world pays attention to. If you saw the suffering that was going on during the war, and the horrific situations, it was hard to see how little people cared in the international community.
What was going on at the time?
The context was a place where there was no rule of law. Everyone was just trying to survive. A number of wardens working in eastern Congo were allegedly involved in illegal activities. A warden in the Ituri Forest was making arrangements with people engaged in illegal gold mining and the ivory trade. There were also courageous wardens who fought the illegal exploitation of resources, like the warden of Garamba, who was defending rhinos, and he died. The ICCN was in disarray, people were not getting paid, and so the temptation was strong to make money where you could make money. The parks had valuable resources in them, and people were losing their lives trying to protect the park, with some enriching themselves. It was incredibly unstable and it was really hard for us to keep things under control. Sometimes you had fantastic support from park authorities and sometimes they made it really difficult.
We tried very hard to keep the operations of the park continuous, and people paid and supported. Those were the priorities, so that the park rangers could work safely and effectively. It was a very difficult and complicated situation. You couldn’t get into the park, often, because militia groups were moving around. That was a difficult context. At that time, very few donors were funding conservation work and even longer-term development work. Most donor money went to humanitarian aid and security.
What does the development agenda for the surrounding communities look like?
Development agencies are often not working in areas that are a priority for conservation and so conservationists end up doing a lot of development work. And so many conservationists have had to take on work you would want to see done by experts with years of training and experience. There were no development agencies working on developing appropriate, sustainable, and gender-sensitive programs to help rebuild people’s lives and livelihoods. This left a serious gap, because if they aren’t filled, nothing will improve for people or for the conservation of wildlife and forests. That’s when conservation groups started taking on some of that work, and that is often what happens – unfortunately, not always with the best skills and expertise. In an ideal world, there would be development experts working with conservation experts. Whatever is happening outside the park needs to be addressed in a complementary fashion to what is being done inside the park. That is what makes it complex. The downside is that many conservation organizations don’t have the resources or the capacity to take on development and so often development projects are not done or not done well.
What are the development projects that have been tried?
On a small scale there are cases of alternative activities luring people away from poaching, even promoting beekeeping, and those are great and encouraging. The problem is scaling it up to large areas of land. There are places where it is done badly because of lack of funding and expertise and thus they have little impact. We believe conservation and development have to be coupled. What you want is partnering between development and conservation organizations. Some conservationists have reached out to work with development agencies and extractive companies to influence their practice to make it less destructive. We see less interest on the part of industry seeking to make their behavior more sustainable, although that is slowly changing. When they do it they often do it to showcase their corporate responsibility, and not necessarily to improve the environment.
What about alternatives to bush meat?
Hunting for meat happens all over the world. It is called “bush meat” in Africa. In the United States and Europe, we just call it hunting. It becomes a problem when it is unsustainable, or when the hunting is of endangered species. One of the solutions will be improved and more intensified farming systems with much less waste. But strategies have to be context-specific and appropriate, so each situation will be different. In some parts of the DRC, agriculture is not an option because the infrastructure isn’t there. In some parts of eastern DRC there have been efforts to introduce alternatives (like fish farms), and introduce agricultural alternatives to reduce bush meat consumption. Although people were happy to have cabbages and carrots on their plates, the only commodity they had that was valuable enough to transport and that they could sell (so that they could have cash) was meat. They could smoke and dry the meat and it could be transported long distances, to urban centers. In some of the tropical forest areas, cows didn't survive. They also tried raising chickens and goats and pigs with some limited success. In some places, people place a premium value on meat from wild animals, and will spend more on wild animal meat than goat or pig or domesticated animal. Those are some of the cultural contexts within which appropriate alternative strategies have to be found.
What about alternative fuels?
Many people throughout Africa rely on wood and charcoal as their only source of fuel for cooking and heating. This places an enormous burden on forests. We’ve funded some small-scale projects in different parts of Africa (some in Uganda) that were relatively successful. They were fabricating “eco-briquettes” from scraps of organic material, including sawdust and small wood chips. They were still wood — wood chipped and mixed with other materials to make briquettes. It’s not completely an alternative to wood. There are also many efforts in Southeast Asia to use biogas, like cow dung and urine and pig feces that seemed to be working well. One problem, however, is that these are dependent on significant inputs and initial investment, and that isn’t possible for some very poor communities.
Photo courtesy of Annette Lanjouw