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Interview with Congo Kinshasa RPCV Craig R. Sholley Director of Conservation & Education
Interview with Congo Kinshasa RPCV Craig R. Sholley Director of Conservation & Education
Craig Sholley is a wildlife biologist and conservationist who is renowned for his work with the Mountain Gorilla Project. Through the course of his years in Africa, he has been instrumental in creating the strategy that ultimately saw the mountain gorillas and their habitat protected by the peoples of those nations where they had once been exploited. The project has been seriously impacted by the civil war in Rwanda and presently, by the war in Congo. Craig Sholley was a featured speaker at the 1998 IWRC conference. He spoke eloquently and passionately of a land, a species and a people few of us will ever have the chance to know.
The presentation given by Craig Sholley at IWRC Conference '98 was based on an article titled "Guerillas in the Midst of Gorillas". This article was written by Mr. Sholley in 1993 and was published in the March/April 1993 edition of "ZooGoer" magazine. Please read the article, with some fascinating photos, as a backgrounder to this interview.
online: Your experiences with wildlife and conservation began in 1973 as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zaire, Africa. What influenced you to take this road?
Craig Sholley: Especially in my early childhood I can remember two things that I was very passionate about. One was wildlife and conservation, and the other was a phenomenal interest in Africa, largely because of the wildlife. After receiving my undergraduate degree in biology, knowing that I wanted to pursue a career in biology, I looked for opportunities that involved both wildlife and Africa, and the Peace Corps was the natural choice. In the early seventies, there were some good opportunities in Africa. Zaire was a huge country that had a big Peace Corps program and so I went to Zaire. From Zaire, I had the opportunity to visit East Africa, which gave me chances to visit many of the National Parks that are well-known. That, in turn, gave me opportunity to meet people who were involved in conservation. By meeting them, I was able to develop contacts that have challenged and helped create my career.
online: Did your experience in Africa set you on a different career path than you'd originally planned?
Craig Sholley: Actually, when I reflect on the Peace Corps experience, I know definitively that it changed my life forever, and it provided the direction that my life has taken. Almost everything that I've done since the early 1970's has in some way, shape or form been affiliated with those initial two years in Africa, either via areas that I visited at that period of time or because of people that I'd met and contacts that I'd developed. It's an interesting set of events that was set in motion.
online: During the course of your career, you developed a conservation strategy that is now known as ecotourism. What impact has ecotourism had on the animals of Africa?
Craig Sholley: I think ecotourism is a broad strategy that in large part is misunderstood today. Ecotourism, if approached appropriately, can be a very sound conservation strategy that benefits wildlife and local peoples, creating a set of benefits that ultimately establish sound conservation programs. On the other hand, if it's approached in a wrong manner, there's a strong possibility that ecotourism can be destructive. That is why when I talk, I talk about developing a program based on sound science, a program that is well regulated and that has a protocol… one that has a structure. Basically, the rules have been established up front so that people conducting a trip and visitors on a trip will know exactly what is possible and what's not possible.
online: Ecotourism has in some cases been a bad word, but obviously people like you have changed that notion completely. When Dian Fossey came to Karisoke, the incredible work she did started everything. She was thought, though, to have a rather confrontational approach because of the work she was doing at the time. You spoke, at your presentation, about the poaching going on when Dian Fossey arrived in Rwanda, and other problems that were present. Craig Sholley approached the problems differently and that approach seems to be working incredibly well.
The jungle home of the
Craig Sholley: Well…it's interesting that you say that. Dian was phenomenally antagonistic with tourists visiting the mountain as it related to the mountain gorilla project. She was opposed to the overall strategy of collaborating with the local and national governments and creating a situation wherein people were actually able to go out into the forest and see gorillas - pay money to do so and thereby create an economy based on natural resources. She was opposed to that and I think, in part, a lot of that was because of the period of time she started working in Africa. Because of the obstacles she faced, she became very paranoid and that paranoia did not allow her to broaden her approach to conservation, which ultimately created problems for her in the future. Interestingly, when I was director of the Mountain Gorilla project, one of the many things that I was responsible for was the tourism component of the Mountain Gorilla Project, and at that point I recognized that there were lots of positive things happening. I also recognized that there were a lot of negative attributes that, if allowed to continue, could be phenomenally destructive. That is actually, in large part, one of the major reasons why I totally shifted gears as far as my career is concerned. For many years I was involved in science and in education and then I was involved in field conservation. To just shift gears five years ago and move into the world of ecotourism and do what I'm doing now… had you asked me ten years ago, I would have said "Nonsense!" Then, I would have said there's no way, shape or form... but I thought it was necessary for someone like me to get involved in the world of ecotourism and provide a direction that was positive as opposed to negative. Hopefully I've been doing that.
online: How does it feel to take a chance like that with your own career as well as your international reputation, and prove to the world, spectacularly, that you were correct? Your ecotourism approach has made a tremendous difference in Rwanda.
Craig Sholley: I think it's important, first of all, to recognize that I'm just one player amongst many. There was a large team of people there before me… people there working with me, and people who continue to be on the ground. It really has been a team… a collaborative effort using technical expertise from abroad and using in-country expertise in training people so that ultimately they could carry on the project when people were gone. It's important to recognize that, but needless to say, it feels very good that the kinds of strategies that we decided to use can be successful. On the other hand, it's very frustrating to take a look at what existed in Rwanda in 1985, 1986 and 1989, recognize how successful it was and recognize how the program has basically fallen apart in large degree because of a political situation beyond my control. There's a lot of good feeling as it relates to what I know can be done and what I believe could ultimately be reestablished, but at the moment it is frustrating because of circumstances.
online: Have the peoples of Africa benefited or grown as a result of their awareness of and education in wildlife and ecology?
Craig Sholley: I think they have. I think it's very important to recognize for anybody that the natural world around you is a phenomenal resource on a whole variety of different levels. In this case, when you're talking about developing nations, it's important for local people and local governments to recognize that by preserving the natural environment and wild species around them they can benefit. When you create a sustainable program that provides economic value, there is a dramatic shift in attitude and that's what happened in Rwanda. One of the interesting things that we did in the early years of the MGP was to do a survey of the area with regards to people's attitudes. We found out in 1980 that only about thirty to thirty-five percent of local people living on the periphery of the park felt that it was important to preserve the forest and protect the gorillas. After five years of education programs and five years of tourism that created economic value for the local community, we redid the survey… and what a flip-flop! In five years, attitudes had changed immensely, and eighty-five percent of the population on the boundary of the park felt it was important to preserve the park and the gorillas. That attitudinal shift is extremely important and it's one of the things that I believe has allowed gorillas to continue to survive, even in the midst of a war zone that's been in place basically for the last eight years.
online: It's easy for us here in an affluent society to talk ecology, but to make it work, in an emerging nation, I suppose you have to relate it to economy, don't you?
Craig Sholley: Well, you do. You have to allow people to be involved. When you're dealing with human populations... dense human populations who are dealing with wildlife in their back yard and the problems that creates, then ultimately you've got to provide them with a way to get involved and benefit from that wildlife and the natural area.
online: At your presentation you showed us pictures of the children who were so actively involved with their partners, the gorillas. These pictures emphasized, to me, how successful your strategies have been.
Craig Sholley: Well, exactly! I showed two pictures. One was a photo of the kids glaring all in the same direction, all looking at a presenter doing a presentation… intent upon what he or she was saying. The other photo was taken when I returned to Rwanda in 1995. Even after total and complete chaos and seeing family members killed around them, these kids felt strongly enough to go back to their homes when they met me and pull out these pictures that they'd been saving. This was basically four years into the war, and they went back to their homes and pulled these things off the shelves. I assure you that from a materialistic standpoint, there aren't lots and lots of things in these people's houses. For me to realize that this was a major picture in their home… there for a very specific reason because of how they felt with regards to their national treasure… made me feel very, very good.
online: Do you feel that the subsequent responses of the Rwandan government in regards to poaching or trafficking in protected species were influenced to any degree by ecotourism?
Craig Sholley: Oh, there's no doubt about it... I think laws were established, the patrols were set up... that active presence in the park on a day and night basis… all of this transpired as a result of the economic influence. They realized that if they protected the gorillas and protected the montane environment they could benefit economically and unless they put these programs into place that actively preserve the forest and gorillas, the resource would be gone.
online: You showed a picture of park staff clearing away landmines… this was done more out of a sense of pride than anything else, wasn't it? Was it done out of their sense of duty to the gorillas?
Craig Sholley: Yes. In my opinion, that's exactly why it happened. The newly formed government realized that if in fact the gorillas were going to be preserved they had to get rid of the land mine menace. In conjunction with local peoples from the former government who knew where the landmines were established, this group of field engineers was out in the forest on a day-to-day basis risking their lives to de-mine the park to make it safe not only for people, but also more importantly for gorillas. Hopefully, in the long run that would allow them, of course, to re-establish the tourism program and receive the economic benefit that they had in the past.
online: The world was shocked by the murder of Dian Fossey. Did her death impact terribly on the mountain gorilla project at first? I presume that it had impact because there were movies made and public awareness about the plight of the gorillas was heightened… perhaps her untimely death eventuated in giving the project a wider scope. Did the mountain gorilla project in Karisoke also die for a time until you came on board?
Craig Sholley: Well, it's really interesting. This is a confusion that has to be resolved all the time. Dian created the Karisoke Research Centre and it was predominantly responsible for research in a very small area of the Virungas. The Mountain Gorilla Project was actually formed a couple of years later and it took on a much broader scope: protection of the entire forest and protection of all the gorillas in the forest. It was, in fact, located and based at Kinigi, on the periphery of the park; that's where park headquarters was located. Dian continued the research component on a small scale while the broader conservation program was evolving, kind of divorced from what she was all about... and so there are lots of players whose names are not known. Dian, of course, has the name recognition, but there were lots of players who had a tremendous impact upon the overall conservation ethic of the region. When Dian died, of course, as a result of National Geographic articles, movies and documentaries it made national newspapers and people felt strongly that it may impact heavily on what was happening from a conservation standpoint on the ground in Central Africa. Of course everybody was sorry that she died, but the reality was that the program went on without a hitch.
online: Dian Fossey, then, had a high profile because of the movie and because of National Geographic… but she was one player of many.
Craig Sholley: Exactly. It is important to recognize that certainly she brought the plight of Mountain Gorillas in Central Africa to world attention with the magazines, the documentaries and then the movie. The world realized that they had a wonderful treasure in the Virunga Mountains of Central Africa, that the situation was an extremely fragile one and unless they became involved, there was every likelihood that both the forest and the gorillas would be gone.
online: When you returned to Africa in 1987 to direct the project, what state did you find it in?
Craig Sholley: I think the project was in relatively good condition. One of the things that I wanted to work on straightforwardly was a greater collaboration between Rwanda, Uganda, and Zaire, so that became one of my main objectives. I felt that for too long each and every one of those countries, each and every one of those parks acted as an entity unto itself. There was little, if any, cooperation and collaboration. The reality is that the forests in which the gorillas live are located in all three of those countries. The families of gorillas with whom we were working on a day-to-day basis could on any given day be in any one of those three countries. It was important to me to help establish a protocol that allowed the three governments and the three national parks to understand each other and work under the auspices of the same umbrella. That was a major objective, and I started developing contacts in Congo and Uganda and brought groups together. As a result of that, we were able to put together a census, which sorely needed to be done. It gave us some good base-line data that we could utilize to determine what our future direction would be. The other thing that I concentrated very heavily on was training, and ensuring that the people in Rwanda with whom I was working on a day-to-day basis would be ultimately competent to take over the reins. That eventually happened in the early 1990's.
online: I guess that was a better approach than trying to teach the gorillas political boundaries!
Craig Sholley: (laughs) Unfortunately, I don't think that would have worked!
online: When the Rwandan government took responsibility for the project in 1990, who was involved in the project, and further to that, when you returned in 1995, after the civil war, what were your findings?
Craig Sholley: We worked directly with Rwandan National Parks system and had a big meeting in Nairobi, of all places, with all the players involved. I decided that it was important for me, and others, as technical advisers, to take a couple of steps back from the day-to-day operations of the park. The Rwandan Government was insistent that we not divorce ourselves completely from what was going on, and of course we didn't want to. At that point, another organization called the International Gorilla Conservation Program was born. That ultimately led to the creation of one of my objectives: an organization that was responsible for providing technical advice not only to one singular government, but to the three governments that provide habitat for mountain gorillas. We needed to provide them with a forum in which they could interact with each other on a regular basis. That happened in early 1990… the idea was created in early 1990 and six to eight months later it was in place and operational.
online: Do you feel that conservation projects of this magnitude should be left in the hands of emerging nations or that a world conservancy group should be part of the project?
Craig Sholley: I think that ultimately, we have to realize that unless we involve local governments and developing nations in the process, we're not going to be successful. We need to provide them with the opportunity to basically create their own situation as well as provide them with the expertise and the funding to do so. We will have little hope as an outside world conservancy of determining what's going to happen within the boundaries of individual nations. Now, I think it's important for us to be involved. I think it's important for us to be partners, but ultimately we've got to create attitudes and infrastructures in developing nations that allow them to administer conservation projects on their own and then cross our fingers and hope that it's going to go the way we would hope it to.
online: Are our efforts, to your mind, too little/too late as far as the mountain gorilla and similar projects are concerned? Did we miss the boat?
Craig Sholley: Well, given the political situation in those countries during the sixties and seventies, I think there was little opportunity for us to get involved during that period of time. The other reality is that this whole world of conservation has evolved pretty quickly over the last couple of decades, and African attitudes and conservation group attitudes have changed tremendously. I think it's because of that attitudinal change and a change in approach if you will, that we are - at least mildly, succeeding in some arenas. So I'm not quite sure we could have done anything differently as it relates to the mountain gorilla project. I mean certainly we could have gotten started a couple of years earlier, but the time was not appropriate. I'm not quite sure it would have worked as well. The eighties seem to have been the time wherein things were ripe for creating this kind of project. From a stability standpoint, from a political standpoint, from a people-to-people interaction-type standpoint, everything seemed to be ripe for the picking, if you will. And it did work. Now we're dealing, unfortunately, with an unshakable political situation whose future is a big question mark.
online: What's the importance of conservation education and how can this education be provided where it's most needed?
Craig Sholley: I think conservation education is one of the most important things that we do. I come from a conservation education background. Although I don't do it on a regular basis anymore, I feel very strongly that the programs that we did in Rwanda with local communities, local schools and governmental ministries has resulted in an attitude that even exists today. That attitude... that sensitization... that knowledge that the people of Rwanda in a variety of different places possess has allowed, even in the midst of all of this chaos, for the gorillas to continue to survive.
A tent city of refugees, at the base
Karisimbi, just a few miles from the gorillas
online: So even in countries where people are victims of war or without food or water, you feel that you can show adequately that conservation is economically, socially and environmentally the way to go?
Craig Sholley: Yes, more importantly than most other situations, because interestingly enough, I think you've got a captive audience… you've got an interested audience... you've got an audience that's kind of devoid of distractions. If you've got a program that is well run, that involves them, it provides them with light at the end of the tunnel. A program that includes the natural world around them, that allows them to understand that their natural world and wild critters are resources that need to be preserved… then ultimately they will become a player. Unless we involve those players, we are not going to succeed. Now, I also believe that conservation education is just as important in the developed world because we're making tremendous mistakes here in the United States and tremendous mistakes are being made in Europe. We like to toot our own horns a great deal indicating yes, we're doing everything right, but take a look around us and the mistakes are many. Ultimately, we're a materialistic world that uses ninety percent of the world's resources and gives nothing back... so a lot of education has to occur here at home, also.
online: There were just over three hundred gorillas left before the war started, and you've been unable to determine their numbers reliably since that time. You know that there have been some gorilla casualties, and the fighting has continued in their midst. Their plight has worsened, and the danger of extinction is very real. What can we do? How can the average citizen support your work or the kind of work that's going on in Africa and the Congo?
Craig Sholley: Well, I rarely have said this in the past, but I will say it now because of circumstances in Congo in particular. The situation in Congo right across the border from Rwanda is pretty dismal at this point. It's a situation totally and completely out of control. Fortunately there are guards and guides and a park infrastructure that remains intact, but the guards and the guides… the "conservateur"… have not been paid in months and months. They straightforwardly need money. It's been estimated by the African Wildlife Foundation that if in fact the gorillas and that area of Congo are to be preserved for at least the next six to eight months, they're going to require five thousand dollars a month. With five thousand dollars a month, they can probably keep guards and guides in the forest doing the job that needs to be done and they can provide the conservateur with enough money to interact appropriately with the military, so that the military is convinced to assist in conservation.
online: Which agency would one approach if interesting in helping the gorillas?
Craig Sholley: The group that I continue to believe is the most effective is the International Gorilla Conservation Program. What I would suggest you do if you want to offer your support, is write to the African Wildlife Foundation, which is the lead organization for that consortium of organizations that supports IGCP. At the bottom of the cheque put in quotation marks: "restricted funds IGCP". That way, all funds go directly to support IGCP.
online: There's very little money required here considering the magnitude of the problem. It's a pretty low operation budget, isn't it?
Craig Sholley: Five thousand dollars a month is a pittance, and it can be the difference between the gorilla population continuing to survive in Congo and ultimately being gone forever.
online: You've given your life to this work. What has it given you?
Craig Sholley: Oh Gosh... I've had more opportunities than you could ever imagine. To go out into the field as I did in the past on a day-to-day basis and spend hours and hours with a family of gorillas… to be there by myself in affiliation with them is the most privileged experience you can ever imagine. I can't even begin to describe what it's like to be out in the midst of thirty gorillas and have them treat you as one of their own. It's phenomenally special and if I get nothing more out of what I've done for the last twenty-five years as it relates to conservation, I've been well-paid.
online: I think the people who heard you speak at the conference envied your enthusiasm and your experiences.
Craig Sholley: I know I've been very, very lucky. There's no question about it. (laughs) I pinch myself every once in a while and say, well, you know, this is what you wanted to do when you were a kid...
online: Thank you Peace Corps!
Craig Sholley: And thank you very, very much for the opportunities!
The Virungas in the distance
online: Where would you hope to see the planet in twenty years?
Craig Sholley: Whoa, boy! Well, I hope that in twenty years we've got some of the marvelous places that we presently have today. I take a look at what the natural world was like twenty-five years ago and realize that it's not the same, and I realize that in twenty years from now it may be very different and we may have lost a natural heritage that's irreplaceable. I hope the work that the conservation community does today has an impact so that those areas are preserved in the future. I hope that representative species like the mountain gorilla, the African elephant and the one-horned Asian rhino are around to be a part of this marvelous place.
online: Are you hopeful… really hopeful?
Craig Sholley: Some days I'm hopeful and some days I get very frustrated. I think we all do. When you're involved in the world of conservation and you see the problems that developing nations in particular are dealing with on a day-to-day basis and you realize the choices that they've got to make, you can get pretty frustrated pretty quickly.
online: Gandhi said that the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. What does Craig Sholley say?
Craig Sholley: I would agree whole-heartedly. I'm a big admirer of Gandhi and I think that those words are very appropriate. If we can't treat our world of wildlife with the same respect we'd like to have for each other, then there's little hope for us as a species.
online: The many people who will read this article and to whom you have spoken at the conference are dedicated rehabilitators of wildlife. They are from all walks of life. In one way or another, they heal, nurse, nurture, raise, release, educate, compile data, do research... what would you say to them?
Craig Sholley: I have tremendous respect for the group of people that I've met at the conference. I have not been personally involved in any rehab efforts long-term, but I have been out in the field and I've seen what rehabbers do. When I go into individual homes I recognize the patience, the persistence and the frustrations that they deal with on a day-to-day basis. I'm very impressed, and I have the utmost respect for the passion that they have for their work.
online: What's next for Craig Sholley?
Craig Sholley: Well, life is always full of surprises. I get a lot of phone calls. I'm lucky in that regard and I never really quite know what's going to happen in terms of opportunities! I've been one who made a promise to myself a long, long time ago that I would take advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves. For the most part, I've done that. I'm still open to opportunities. I continue to be involved in gorilla conservation and continue to advise from afar, but I'm also involved in a bunch of other projects that are broader conservation in orientation. There are some projects in Uganda, and I'm going to become more involved in a new project in Peru that's primate-oriented. I'll start to work a little bit with the possibility of creating a huge national park in the Amazonia area of Peru, doing that in conjunction with the organization that I work for now, International Expeditions. Just last week I decided that I would take on a new project in India... so there are some neat opportunities!
online: So you're not about to give it all up, move to Ohio and become a used-car salesman?
Craig Sholley: umm...not a used-car salesman, no. (laughs)
online: Which of the world's animals do you relate to... and why?
Craig Sholley: Interestingly enough, I try not to have a favorite. Obviously, I've devoted a large part of my life to gorilla conservation but I've also been involved in a lot of other conservation projects. I spend a great deal of time in Africa, but I've worked in South America, I've worked in Asia and I like to think of myself as a generalist as it relates to the animals I like. I like them all! I think they all play a very important role as it relates to the maneuverings of an ecosystem and so... yes, I'm prejudiced as it relates to gorillas, there's no question about it. They are marvelous creatures that, in so many respects, are like human beings. You look into their eyes and you see an awful lot of yourself, no question about that.
online: That was the impression I got from reading about you in a National Geographic article. Looking into the eyes of a gorilla changed your life.
Craig Sholley: Yes. I think that's what I said initially. I think there are lots of scientists…well, not a lot of scientists, but a few lucky scientists who've been able to got out into the field and work with gorillas on a relatively long-term basis. I know most of those people. In every respect, every one of those people's lives has been changed. They went in to their work in Africa as scientists, and for the most part, many of them continue in the world of science. Now, they're also heavily involved in the world of conservation because they recognize that unless they do their part… unless they play their role, there's every possibility that we will lose creatures like gorillas, chimpanzees or bonobos. You can't work with those animals on a day-to-day basis and be not changed forever.
online: If you could speak from the point of view of a thirty-year old silverback, what would you say?
Craig Sholley: (laughs) Oh gosh… I probably would say "life is good as long as my forested home remains intact. Family life is very special. Help me preserve a combination of my forest and my family."