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Zaire RPCVs Bill Weber and Amy Vedder: Conservation, Gorillas and Lacrosse
Zaire RPCVs Bill Weber and Amy Vedder: Conservation, Gorillas and Lacrosse
Bill Weber and Amy Vedder:
Conservation, Gorillas and Lacrosse
by Margaret and
Some people live far different lives than most, where unusual circumstances and opportunities place them where they need to be in order to make a difference in the world. Bill Weber and Amy Vedder are such people.
Two of the world’s most respected conservationists and experts in the study of mountain gorillas in Africa, they have written the life experiences which distinguish them in their book In the Kingdom of Gorillas: Fragile Species in a Dangerous Land (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
Weber and Vedder live on a quiet street (Locksley Road) near Mohansic Elementary School with their sons, Ethan, a senior in high school and Noah, a college senior now away at school.
One might ask how a couple known for conservation work in the far trappings of Africa came to select Yorktown Heights as their hometown? "Simple," says Weber. "When I was offered the position of director of conservation programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society in 1988, I just took a compass and drew a 50-mile radius around the Bronx Zoo where I was working, and looked within that circle.
"After being in the forests of Rwanda with our sons during their early life, Amy and I wanted to move back to the United States so that they could grow up in a small town environment like we did," he added. "While Amy was still on a project in Africa, I telephoned her and told her I had found a nice home within commuting distance to my job in a town that had never rejected a school budget. Sight unseen, she trusted me, and I put a bid on it."
Today, both Weber and Vedder work for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the organization that, since its inception 100 years ago, has helped to establish more than 130 major protected areas in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the United States, covering hundreds of thousands of square miles. While Weber concentrates on North American programs, Vedder is a vice president responsible for Living Landscapes, an approach that focuses on the needs of animals, both inside and outside of parks, while integrating human activities so they are compatible with maintaining healthy habitats for wildlife.
While their conservation work has been featured in the National Geographic special "Gorilla" and they have been profiled on CNN, NBC News and National Public Radio, Weber and Vedder have become more famous in Yorktown for coaching soccer and lacrosse.
Vedder said, "We knew how to play these sports, growing up in upstate New York and from playing them in college. Our work takes a good deal of our time, so we thought it would be a good idea to do this in order to spend time with our children as they pursued their sports activities."
Illustrating the diverse lifestyles they have led, Vedder and Weber pointed out two widely divergent works of art in their home – a framed photograph montage given to Vedder by the Yorktown Athletic Club of girl lacrosse players and an oil painting of Pablo, a favorite gorilla the couple tracked from the time he was an infant until he was 26 years of age.
Weber and Vedder’s interest in gorillas was the lucky result of having gone to see them right out of college when they were Peace Corps teachers in Zaire (now the Congo). Both enjoying the rigors of exerting themselves outdoors, they would visit a nearby national park, where a park warden befriended them and, noting their keen interest and frequent visits, agreed that they could assist him in his work.
"Actually, we are glad that we were teachers before we became involved in conservation work," said Weber, "because the experience gave us better insight into the African perspective from social, political and economic points of view, rather than just straight wildlife issues."
After their Peace Corps stint, they returned to the United States for graduate work, then applied for a grant from WCS to return to Africa to study the mountain gorillas. In 1978 they returned to Rwanda, rather than Zaire, to study with the most famous of gorilla researchers, Dian Fossey of Gorillas in the Mist fame.
By that time, the gorilla population was heading toward extinction. While poaching was rampant, it was the threatened loss of habitat that most endangered the gorillas.
When the couple learned that a major portion of Africa’s first national park was slated for deforestation for a cattle raising project, they went to the director of national parks to propose a study for a different kind of development program that would be sensitive to forest ecology. The program, called the Mountain Gorilla Project (MGP), focused on saving the mountain gorilla by saving its habitat. But the project gave something back to Rwandans.
"Everyone would agree that the world is a better place if you save gorillas and other species, but when you’re dealing with a nation struggling with its economy as well as its own identity, it can be a difficult battle," Weber said.
"We conducted research for a year and a half to develop the components needed to protect the forest in order to sustain the gorillas, and increase revenues at the same time," he continued. "Happily, the government responded to the concept quickly."
The MGP initiated the development of "ecotourism" where tourists interested in exploring wildlife in the forests would generate more income than what could be produced from farmland.
"It didn’t make any sense to us that the national parks at that time were charging just $2 for entry fees, especially when visitors from the United States and Europe were spending thousands of dollars on travel to get there," explained Weber.
The tours are sensitive to the gorillas and the environment in that they are limited to six people at a time, and involve following gorilla trails with a trained guide to find gorillas that became accepting of having people within a few yards of their families. Visitors were willing to pay $200 to $250 each for that experience.
Since launched, the MGP has grown in dollars, saved key mountain forests and the largest – but still tiny – mountain gorilla population in the world. A survey conducted 10 years after its creation found that entry fees to the park surpassed $1 million. These same tourists added another $3 to $5 million to the Rwanda economy for other services and food to support their ventures.
Expanded tourism was a bone of contention with Fossey, who felt that it would lead to the further decline of the gorilla population. "Fossey had her own way of looking at things," Weber noted, "but we believed that we could achieve our goals and not lose gorillas."
In fact studies have shown that as the ecotourism program has grown so has the mountain gorilla population, increasing from 258 gorillas in a 1980 census to more than 360 today.
Increased revenue was used for the additional protection of the parkland with guards increasing from 14 in the beginning to 78 today.
During the civil war in 1990, much of which was focused around the national park, the rebels and existing government both stayed away from the parkland and its gorilla population. Even when the war escalated to a catastrophic level in 1994, with the genocide of more than 800,000 people, there was only one gorilla death.
Both sides saw the forest and its gorillas as resources for the future.
Weber and Vedder learned lessons in Africa that now apply to their work in North America. "It’s good to ask India to live with tigers and to ask them to make sacrifices to do that, but what about our own country where there is still clear cutting of forests?" Weber asked rhetorically.
For the first six months after taking his current position, Weber assessed his own continent’s conservation needs. "WCS takes an information-based approach to conservation, rather than advocacy," he stated. "Now we’re involved with projects in Alaska, the western mountains, Canada, California, and a big program in the Adirondacks, among many others. Our issues range from better ways to do forestry and ranching to the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone."
Whereas Weber and Vedder are no longer worried about the threats they faced in Africa, such as abduction (they were kidnapped by Idi Amin on their first day in Africa) or malaria, they lead lives that are not quite ordinary in Yorktown Heights.
Both parents still travel individually on projects worldwide that can occupy three months a year. "Our children are proud of what we do," Vedder stated, "so they are accommodating to the kind of special attention we give them, frequently only one parent at a time. What it means mainly is that we deal with the house a little differently, depending on which parent is at home. People are surprised to learn that Bill, for instance, is a great cook and knows how to do laundry."
Where do Weber and Vedder see the wildlife conservation effort going in the next 10 years? "The situation is that we’re in the ‘best of times and the worst of times,’ " responded Weber. "It will be a real struggle with more population growth, but at the same time there is a much greater recognition of the importance of conservation. So, we are optimistic."
Two years ago, Weber’s program consulted on an environmental corridor project initiated by Yorktown Supervisor Linda Cooper and involving three other towns, Cortlandt, Putnam Valley and New Castle.
"The result is that we are working with the WCS Metropolitan Conservation Alliance to help us discuss and understand the biological, social, economic and legal aspects of current land use planning systems," Cooper said.
"We are lucky to have such special people as Amy and Bill as part of our community," she added; good, she reiterated, because their life experiences have ventured well beyond our own view of the world, and having them to "share that experience so that we can become better aware of our connectedness with the rest of the world."
What can people do individually to become more aware of nature and conservation? "Visit the Bronx Zoo," exclaimed Vedder. "People can get a real sense of the mission of conservation there, then pitch in to efforts in your own community."