One of my favorite parts of traveling internationally, especially for work, is not knowing what you’ll learn. You enter with what expertise you have, jump in and try to make something happen. Simultaneously learning at least two new cultures (work and the region), you discover things about your field, yourself, and your preconceptions that can change perspectives entirely. Now do all that in four weeks!
By Linda Holcombe
Masters of Environmental Science candidate at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
I came to the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) in the end of July, 2014 as a short internship in addition to my thesis research in Cape Town, South Africa, exploring fishing and conservation perspectives of African Penguin conservation. My professional career has been almost entirely in marine and exotic animal husbandry so I was unsure of what to expect or what I could contribute.
Turns out, an entirely different perspective was very useful and I learned lesson 1: sometimes different is good. I have seen in my work in aquariums that homogeneous interests are great for understanding, but can stymie other things such as creative thinking or pushing for clarity. My first task was to provide commentary on a 66 page feasibility report for a potential tourism certification scheme. This was great because I had the chance to learn about the initiative while looking at it from a non-insider point of view and could identify areas of potential confusion or questions that might arise in circulation.
The feasibility report introduced me to lesson 2: certification schemes are difficult. Having been involved in public animal interaction and education programs for years, I was no stranger to common ecolabels such as the MARINE STEWARDSHIPS COUNCIL, RAINFOREST ALLIANCE, or FAIR TRADE. But what I always took for granted was their intuitiveness. When my supervisor, Anna Behm Masozera, informed me they had been working on this initiative for nearly two years, I was shocked.
My next task was to fill in the literature gap for this feasibility report, compiling examples of how other eco-certification and recognition systems have achieved their goals and building a repertoire of lessons learned. This further elaborated the difficulty when I went into pages of reports about the difficulties and resistances certification systems face throughout their lifespan. I even learned quite a bit about systems I had always adhered to, revealing that no system is ever perfect and that all anyone does is the best they can.
Speaking of which, the other Yale-IGCP intern, Sarah, and I took a brief educational vacation for a gorilla tracking experience! Working in the conservation field, we both figured we’d be great, eco-friendly tourists and have NO problem sticking to the guidelines for best practices laid out in the Gorilla Rules and IUCN BEST PRACTICES. Lesson 3: conscientious tourism is harder than it seems. We both took the Gorilla Friendly™ Pledge beforehand and had varying degrees of familiarity with the rules, but when we finally got to the gorilla site, judging the 7m minimum safe distance (to avoid respiratory disease transmission) was incredibly difficult. As was the internal debate of whether or not to draw attention to other tourists’ failure to stay back. I understand the dilemma of rangers and conservation organizations far better now.
Finally, and the title for this post, lesson 4: Sometimes the best work is the quiet work. My first week with IGCP I learned many things very quickly, such as the lack of local exposure for the NGO on the street and what incredible work they do that few hear about. I hiked with Director Anna and Rwanda Country Coordinator Benjamin Mugabukomeye to see the work of village cooperatives in action. Local villagers, organized into co-ops and consisting primarily of former poachers, enter the forest to remove invasive SOLANUM, a threat to native flora and subsequently fauna. They were incredibly efficient, had inspiring stories, and while I documented as much as I could with my camera, I also doubt their work will make a news featurette or documentary. The public wants “exciting” conservation, such as penguin washing or poaching stash raids, but while those activities are very important, “quiet” conservation, such as cooperatives giving productive work to ex-poachers, is equally if not more vital to endangered wildlife protection. My undergraduate degree was in criminal justice, so I feel quite confident in saying that what has been accomplished by these cooperatives is nothing short of incredible. All sides are necessary and I’d love to see this side get more attention.
Overall I can say four weeks is not enough time to enjoy these incredible countries and organization, but the lessons I have learned here will certainly influence the rest of my career- for the better. This region is an incredible place and I am very grateful to the IGCP for sharing it and their work with me.
For more information about the joint Gorilla Friendly™ initiative, contact Julie Stein of Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network (WFEN) at Julie@wildlifefriendly.org. Or Anna Behm Masozera of IGCP at firstname.lastname@example.org.