What would happen if we found an intelligent alien civilization that was less advanced than our own? I posed this as a hypothetical question in a recent blog post. But really, it doesn’t need to be posed as a hypothetical. The answer is playing out right now in the forests of Africa, and it doesn’t reflect very well on us.
The gorillas of Rwanda and Congo are some of our closest living relatives. They are intelligent, socially complex primates. They are also critically endangered. Poaching, hunting, warfare, land competition, and other human activities have brutalized the gorilla populations in Africa, sending them into a long decline. Starting in the 1960s, Dian Fossey stood up to protect the gorillas. In 1985 she was murdered, almost certainly because of those efforts.
I was thinking about the aliens here at home as I was watching Dian Fossey: Secrets in the Mist, an excellent, bracing new TV documentary series about the famed primatologist’s life and work. Although Fossey is gone, her legacy lives on, most notably as carried on by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. The Fund‘s president and CEO, Tara Stoinski, participated as an advisor on the TV series and in many ways serves as the head guardian of Fossey’s legacy.
I spoke with Stoinski about the TV series, about her own conservation efforts, and about the latest insights into the gorilla mind. An edited version of our conversation follows. (For more science news, follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell)
Dian Fossey is a famous figure, yet also an elusive and complicated one. What key ideas do you hope people will take away from the new documentary?
To me, the key messages center on Dian as a female pioneer in the fields of both primatology and conservation. Her scientific studies introduced the world to the true nature of gorillas, and changed the public perception of them from aggressive King Kong-like creatures to the gentle giants they’re known as today. She also initiated the active conservation that helped ensure that mountain gorillas didn’t go extinct, as many had feared.
Did your feelings toward Fossey change as a result of consulting on a TV documentary about her?
I already had an incredible amount of respect and admiration for Dian, but the series definitely reinforced that. It’s a great reminder of how much she loved the gorillas, and the incredibly challenging conditions under which she worked—particularly in terms of what was happening with poaching.
All of us at the Fossey Fund know that this woman gave her life to save the gorillas, which remain among the world’s most endangered animals. Many of our daily activities are exactly the same as what she did 50 years ago: providing boots-on-the ground protection to gorilla families, removing snares from the forest, learning more about the gorillas’ complex lives. We’re literally following in her footsteps.
The conservation goals may be the same but the world sure has changed. How are you working now to safeguard our primate relatives?
We work in Rwanda where we protect half of the remaining mountain gorillas; the other half are protected by the national park authorities. We also work in eastern Congo with another subspecies called the Grauer’s gorilla, which are kind of in the same situation mountain gorillas were 50 years ago: they are declining incredibly rapidly. We have staff on the ground there, as well, directly protecting gorillas in their habitats.
We’re also very engaged in science. We’re the world’s longest-running gorilla research center. Most of what’s known about gorillas has come from work done Karisoke, which is the name Dian gave the research center. We’ve now studied five generations of gorillas. We have researchers that come from around the globe to work with us on studying these animals.
How do you avoid the top-down, colonial approach that bedeviled a lot of early conservation efforts?
We’re working hard in Rwanda and Congo to build African capacity around conservation and science. We work with undergrads in biology at the national universities, bring them out to our research centers, give them classes, show them skills like how to count gorillas or to assess plant biomass. We have seven staff members we’re supporting to get advanced degrees, and more than 30 trackers that we’re supporting to get undergrad degrees. They’re in the forest every day protecting and studying the gorillas. Then nights and weekends we’re helping them to further their education.
We are also working with local communities. For both the mountain gorillas and Grauer’s gorillas, the areas around them have high human population densities, especially in Rwanda. These people are generally quite poor, so they depend on the gorilla’s forest homes for resources like food or water or firewood. We do a lot of work engaging these communities, educating them about the value of biodiversity, helping address their needs including education, livelihood, water access, health access. In order to save gorillas, we need to engage with the people who share their forest home.
What are the most encouraging trends you see these days?
The ways that conservation is now being led by the government of Rwanda, and being embraced and celebrated in the country, is amazing. The government just had its annual gorilla-naming ceremony, and 45,000 people came to see baby gorillas get their names! Fifty years ago, when Dian Fossey started, people thought this species would be extinct by the year 2000. Instead they’re increasing in number.
There are 480 mountain gorillas that live in the population where we work. It was down to 240 when Dian was there. For the entire subspecies you’ve now got 880 individuals. It’s still one of the most endangered animals on the planet, but the numbers are moving in the right direction.
Seeing all the young Rwandans who are really interested in conservation and biology is also really exciting. After the genocide there was a big lack [of scientific talent] there. Now there are young people working in the government, working in other NGOs, getting advanced degrees, and bringing conservation science to the forefront.
What’s the most disconcerting trend?
Congo is a big concern. Unlike mountain gorillas, the vast majority of Grauer’s gorillas live outside of national parks in unprotected community forests. We’ve lost 80 percent of Grauer’s gorillas in the last 20 years. Part of that is due to civil unrest. Militia groups were operating right in the middle of their habitat. Grauer’s gorilla could go extinct in the next 10 to 20 years if we don’t stop the decline.
We just don’t have enough resources to support all the things we need to be doing. The reason mountain gorillas are increasing in Rwanda is because we have a lot of resources going into their protection. We need more if we want these populations to recover, and it’s coming at a time when, in the U.S., funding for conservation is being cut. That to me is an extremely worrisome trend, not just for gorillas. We’re at a real risk of losing elephants, losing gorillas, losing orangutans, losing rhinos in my lifetime.
In the face of those challenges, how are you trying to turn things around in the Congo?
We’re engaging with community landowners to provide protection. These landowners commit to not hunting endangered species like gorillas and chimps on their land. In exchange, they’re hired, they become trackers. We help send their kids to school, we help with livelihood initiatives, we help them diversity their crops so they’re not so dependent on hunting for food.
And it’s working! We’ve been in this one particular area for almost six years, over 1,000 square kilometers, and we don’t know of any gorilla that’s been killed. It gives me hope. I’m amazed that, given all the things that eastern Congo has going through over the past 20 years, there are still people on the ground who value biodiversity, value wildlife, value their forests. They just need help. They can’t do it on their own.
It’s striking that so many of the leaders in primatology are women–Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall in particular, but there are many others. Why do you think that is?
Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey were the pioneers who showed the way. They showed women, particularly of my generation, what you could do: You can go live in the forest of Africa, study these amazing animals, make wonderful discoveries. I also think women have an attraction to animals. I don’t know if it’s part of the nurturing side of our biology, but I think there’s a real affinity there. And women are very patient. It takes a lot of patience to watch these animals.
We have a lot of young Rwandan women now coming up the ranks in science. In the university we have about 50-50 in terms of young women in science, a lot of them in botany and zoology. It’s exciting to see the next generation of young Rwandan women viewing this as a great career opportunity. I think Dian would be very inspired by that.
After 50 years of studying gorillas, what is there left to learn?
The biggest lesson we’ve learned is how adaptable these gorillas are. There is no one universal gorilla behavior. What Dian Fossey saw 50 years ago is different than what we’re seeing now, and is different than what we’ll be seeing in 20 years. It’s not that surprising, really. These animals are incredibly intelligent, they share 98 percent of our DNA, they’re highly flexible, they live in a dynamic environment that requires them to adjust.
Just as the gorillas keep adapting, we need to keep adapting. To do adaptive conservation, you have to understand what’s going on with the species’ basic biology.
Is it reasonable to say that you are seeing cultural evolution in gorillas, or is that projecting human values?
It’s been shown in chimps and orangutans that there is culture, there is social transmission of information. We collaborated on a paper recently showing that there’s some evidence of this in gorillas as well. We definitely see trends in the gorillas. If you have a kind, benevolent male leading the group, that often translates into the personality of the larger group; if you have a more despotic male, that translates into the group as well.
We don’t want to project human aspects onto other primates, but these are our closest living relatives, so of course there are going to be similarities. Whenever we compare other primates’ behavior to our own they always lose out, because we’re always viewing them through a human lens. People sometimes say, ‘The average chimp is as smart as a 6-year-old child.’ Well, what 6-year-old could you drop off in an African rain forest and expect to survive on their own? We’re viewing it through the lens of our society instead of viewing it through the apes’ environment and the way they see things.
The more we learn about these animals, the more were discovering about them. Now scientists are finding that chimps use stone tools. We’ve been on the ground for 50 years and it’s still the tip of the iceberg in these scientific discoveries. We need more people and need more work done on these different populations before they disappear.
You can recreate the fossil record but you can’t recreate behavior. We’re losing the opportunity to find out all these fascinating things about diversity in primate behavior because we’re losing these populations so quickly.