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It's fairly obvious that Bill Weber is frustrated. After all, when the North American director of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society says that Africa is doing a better job of protecting their endangered species than the United States, there's bound to be at least some bitterness behind the statement.
Weber, who spoke to a good-sized crowd at the Redpath Museum on Thursday, March 16, knows his subject. Having travelled back and forth to the Great Lakes region of eastern Africa since the early 1970s, he and his wife Amy Vedder were pioneers in the field of ecotourism as a means of conservation.
And it worked. According to Weber, the mountain gorilla population, which hovered around 250 in the mid-1980s, is over 400 today, a number unseen since the late 1960s. This despite Rwanda's tiny size, crowded population and the brutal genocide of 1994.
"These are some of the poorest people in the poorest country in the world, and they've managed to accomplish this," said Weber. "And in the United States, the richest and most powerful country in the world, we just aren't holding up our end in the conservation equation."
The key to Rwanda's success, he says, was to make Rwandans care about the gorillas, and to show them how conservation is a better option than clear-cutting to make way for farmland. "The rate of recovery [since the genocide] on the economic level, especially in the capital, is really quite remarkable," he said. With $350 a head for a one-hour visit to specific bands of gorillas accustomed to human visitors ("otherwise, all you'll see is fear-diarrhea after they run off"), some 200 jobs have been created and an estimated $4- to $5-million in indirect spending has gone to Rwandans since ecotourism really took off in 1999. Weber says 7,500 people visited Rwanda in 2004, up from maybe 1,500 in 1999, mostly to visit the gorillas in small, eight-person groups. "The demand," he said, "is almost unlimited."
Rwandans are taking care not to upset the delicate ecosystem gorillas depend on. It's taken a fair amount of education to impress upon locals how important saving the forest is, despite the land shortage and country-wide reliance on subsistence farming. But even tourism presents its own dangers, from off-roading Land Rovers to dangerous human-animal interaction.
"What we have to really do is get people out there on foot to meet the animals on their own terms," he says. But with gorillas living in difficult-to-reach terrain — they inhabit mountains between 2,700 and 3,200 metres above sea level — he admits he underestimated the tourism potential.
Most remarkable of all was how the gorilla population escaped the genocide and war relatively unscathed. "It seems that both sides declared that they would not harm the gorillas, which they saw as an economic machine," he says. "It was one of those quite rare instances of a ceasefire being built around one species."