January 13, 2002 - Pantagraph: RPCV Tanzania Patrick Bergin works with African Wildlife Foundation

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RPCV Tanzania Patrick Bergin works with African Wildlife Foundation

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Africa long way from Merna home ; Wildlife Federation leader backs habitat conservation *

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Africa long way from Merna home ; Wildlife Federation leader backs habitat conservation

Jan 13, 2002 - Pantagraph Author(s): Scott Richardson

Patrick Bergin once told a boyhood friend he was going to live in Africa someday.

What Bergin didn't know then was that he would grow up to become a caretaker of that continent's lions, tigers and elephants.

Bergin, 38, son of Angela and James Bergin of Merna, was promoted to president and chief executive officer of the African Wildlife Foundation on Jan. 1.

"I have lived in Africa for 14 years and traveled widely. But I feel that I have only seen a small fraction of what there is to experience here," Bergin said from Africa.

He talks about his adopted country with the enthusiasm of an adventure-hungry boy leafing through the pages of National Geographic. He said, "Africa is the pre-eminent home to wildlife - from the largest land mammal, the African elephant, to the diversity of predators like lions, leopards, cheetahs, African hunting dogs and hyenas."

"Many of us in our minds have a mental image of Africa," he said. "Probably the classic East African savanna with golden grasses and a broken canopy of acacia trees. This Africa still exists."

But the country also has mountains, wetlands, swamps, and deserts - a landscape that Bergin admits he fell in love with. "To this day, this is the greatest perk of my job - the magnificent grandeur and beauty of the landscapes I experience."

Bergin graduated from Normal's University High School in 1981. He joined the Peace Corps after earning a master's degree in the management of development programs in poorer countries from the University of Illinois .

During his two-year stint, Bergin taught adult education and rural sociology at an agricultural college in Tanzania. He also became fluent in Swahili, the most common African language.

The African Wildlife Foundation hired him to develop a program in partnership with the National Parks Service in Tanzania. The goal was to recruit people living near parks to help stop poaching.

The hope was that the people could be convinced to tell police when they saw suspicious strangers who might be hunting illegally - kind of a Neighborhood Watch program.

The parks in turn share tourism dollars with the villages to build schools and health clinics. Bergin set up the program throughout the country.

His work earned him a doctorate in development and the chance to brief former first lady Hillary Clinton, now a U.S. senator from New York, on wildlife issues when she visited in 1997.

Bergin became vice president of AWF African operations two years later. The organization, founded in 1961, works in Nairobi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique and Zambia. His job was to oversee two AWF programs, the Conservation Service Centers and African Heartlands.

The service centers are designed to lend expertise on community economic development, land-use planning and wildlife ecology, among other things. African Heartlands is an effort to conserve large tracts of parklands, private land and villages so animals and people can both prosper.

"Many national parks and game reserves are too small to host viable populations of such large animals," Bergin said.

"Even if a park is designed to protect a certain species, say elephants, would it be large enough to cover the range of cows and their calves or of the bulls, which tend to range much more widely?

"Most protected areas only protect a fraction of the land actually required by wildlife over the seasons and their life cycle."

The program is pragmatic, searching for win-win solutions, he said. Land is set aside for wildlife and ways are sought for residents to earn money from the tourism the animals bring.

One of Bergin's primary jobs today is to convince government and private donors to give more to conserve African habitat. It is the only way to ensure survival of its unique animal life for centuries to come. The AWF works on an annual budget equal to one-tenth of what the San Diego Zoo spends.

"There is something wrong with this picture when as a society we invest so disproportionately in a small representation of wildlife rather than the wildlife resource itself," Bergin said.

"An African landscape devoid of wildlife seems empty and much poorer. Likewise, when I see an African animal separated from the African landscape, I cannot get excited. A giraffe in a zoo or park outside Africa is no longer African.

"To me, wildlife and landscape are inseparable."

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