edder and Weber chronicled their African odyssey in their 2001 best-selling book, “In the Kingdom of Gorillas.” In it they describe intimate encounters with gorillas, their tense relationship with Fossey, and efforts to conserve Rwandan wildlife and wildlands. The book also addresses the 1994 genocide during which as many as 800,000 people, including many of their close friends, were killed.
But despite the challenges of working in Africa, Weber says it’s often harder to do conservation work in the U.S.
“In many critical ways, the challenges facing developing countries completely outweigh and overwhelm what we face in this country, but it’s a more direct set of steps you can take to have an impact on actually dealing with that problem,” he said.
Said Vedder: “I think one of the huge challenges in the U.S. is the growing distrust of government, which we certainly saw play out in the election recently. Anything that relies on government decisions, government control, government management raises a particular challenge in the United States. It’s certainly not brand-new, but it’s really reached a head.
“Conservation of wild areas and wildlife in particular requires a scale of operation in space and in time that is usually not simply local. If people have doubts about national and international governance systems, then you’re in a quandary. And that’s a real challenge for us,” she said.
In the decades since leaving Rwanda, Vedder and Weber have pursued a host of conservation projects, both domestically and abroad, including considerable board work for conservation NGOs. But along with their rising careers came less time spent in the field engaging with the animals and people who first inspired them.
“We’ve gone from field research to starting projects to implementing them to management positions at high levels and eventually really high levels in NGOs. And we left that,” Vedder said. “We wanted to move back to the field and pay it forward through teaching and working with young people.”
“We went back to Rwanda. We got back in touch with things happening on the ground,” Weber said. “And then we came to Yale!”
edder and Weber are currently cultivating the next generation of conservation practitioners at F&ES. The former McCluskey and Bass fellows teach two spring term courses where they share advice and lessons learned over nearly four decades in the field. And for three weeks each May they take a select group of graduate students to Rwanda where they see gorillas — and many other tropical species — in their natural habitat. The tour also exposes students to the challenges of doing conservation in Africa’s most densely-populated nation and one of the poorest in the world.