Why is Rwanda such an important natural world location? How were you originally attracted to it?
I first visited Rwanda in March 1985 on my way home from a field session in Madagascar, and had the good fortune to visit Karisoke Research Center when it was still a field station, and even met Dian Fossey. That trip seems like a dream now. I fell totally in love with the gorillas and the region, always intended to return, and 24 years later I finally did return to Rwanda and the gorillas! As Regional Manager for Gorilla Doctors I lived in Rwanda for 3.5 years, and also worked with our teams in eastern DRC and southern Uganda. During this time we worked with some of the most dedicated and brave men and women, working through the wildlife authorities of each country to protect the parks, conserve the gorillas and help the communities outside the parks. In many ways, mountain gorilla conservation is a model for other conservation programs throughout the world. Mountain gorillas are the only great ape population on earth that is increasing in number!
What has been your most memorable natural world experience to date?
The rescue of baby Ndjingala (details here) with Dr. Eddy, and moving silverback Mukunda back to Virunga National Park when he had wandered out into the village of Kibumba are two of my most memorable experiences. But really every time we were partners in the rescue of an illegally held infant gorilla and every time we successfully helped a free ranging gorilla, was memorable.
What high priority conservation challenges do you feel the natural world is facing at the moment?
The whole natural world is surrounded by people. Human/wildlife conflict and the possibilities of disease transmission between humans, domestic animals and endangered wildlife are very real threats to the continued conservation of the natural world. That is why Gorilla Doctors practices a One Health approach to conservation. We know we cannot possibly keep gorillas healthy without also helping people who live outside the park achieve a life of improved health, including the health of their pets and livestock. At the end of the day, our goal is for people and gorillas live in harmony and good welfare.
Can we as members of the public do anything that genuinely helps preserve the natural world?
I truly think that visiting the natural habitat of any endangered species helps people appreciate the need to conserve both species and the environment for future generations. This appreciation can lead to action. Even small actions in everyday life can contribute to the conservation of a species. I also think it is so very important for people who are passionate about conservation of the natural world to also learn about and respect the local culture, and when possible to remember to support local conservation efforts.
When did you decide to develop your passion for animals and the natural world into a career? What would you say to people looking to do the same?
I've always been drawn to the natural world. When I was little we went camping as a family several times, and later I went to camp every summer for years. I've always felt most alive and complete when I am in a natural environment, and largely because of this, I pursued careers in animal care/conservation. For young people looking for a career caring for the natural world, the best advice is don't give up! It is not an easy path and you won't get rich. But you will work with wonderfully dedicated colleagues, and even with the (sometimes major) challenges you will be filled with a sense of accomplishment with each victory.
If you could pick any Natural World Hero, who would it be and why?
Emmanuel DeMerode. Hands down. He has dedicated his life to the preservation of Virunga National Park, including improving the lives of the people who live outside the park. He inspires his brave and devoted rangers by his own perseverance.
Who or which organisation do you feel is doing important work ‘on-the-ground’ ?
There are so many people doing important work in the field of conservation world wide. Some have the jurisdiction and resources to make a huge impact, like the wildlife authorities and large international organizations. Some are small, grass roots projects, like Conservation Heritage Turambe, a local NGO doing their best to teach children outside Volcanoes National Park about conservation, using art as the vehicle. It takes many partners to succeed in saving a species or environment!
Rainforest, desert, mountains – where do you feel most at home?
Forest and mountains for sure, but I love it all!
How can travellers best experience natural world destinations in a way that helps protect it?
Learn about how the people who are in close proximity with the forest or park you are visiting live, and how you can help them. Research very well the organizations you contribute to so that you can be sure donations are put to the best use.
What is your dream natural world destination, somewhere you haven't yet travelled to?
I’ve never been to South America or Asia - bucket list! Although many areas of Africa are still on that list, namely Botswana.
What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?
CARE! Care about the environment and natural world. Change your behavior in small or large ways to reduce impact on our shared home – the earth.