Conservation is hard work. Working effectively on behalf of any species involves exceptional dedication and relentless optimism, and the people who do it well are truly remarkable.
In the 1980’s, I met Charlene Jendry. At the time, we were both caring for gorillas – me at the National Zoo and Charlene at the Columbus Zoo. Our shared devotion to great apes led to a friendship right away, but I started thinking of her as family years ago. In 1991, Charlene co-founded Partners in Conservation (PIC), a grass-roots conservation organization dedicated to the preservation of mountain gorillas. PIC is guided by the fundamental principle that effective conservation requires collaboration with local people. With this idea as the foundation, PIC has evolved into a major force for good.
PIC has developed relationships with artisans and craftsmenliving near mountain gorilla habitat, buying their products forfair prices that allow the people to live with dignity. Most of thesepartners are women – many who lost their husbands during theRwandan genocide. The opportunities provided by PIC allow themto support their children and have great optimism for the future.The proceeds that PIC generates are directed back to the people whoprotect and care for mountain gorillas – trackers, veterinarians,guards, and so on. How’s that for a wonderful cycle? This past Saturday, I attended PIC’s 18th annual Fete which is held at the Columbus Zoo. This year’s theme was “Small Steps – Big Changes”. Although I can’t say that I’ve been at all 18, I’ve attended more times than I’ve missed. The very first Fete (I was there!) raised about $10,000 for mountain gorillas. This year, PIC raised a bit more than that, actually about $250,000 more. These are just really good people with pure intentions who are doing great conservation work.
One of the best things about attending the Fete is the chance to meet colleagues who are doing important work in the field. This year, I was so happy to spend time with Dominique Bikaba, the executive director of Strong Roots, a conservation organization based in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This talented and humble man is responsible for things like gettting 100,000 tree planted every year to create buffer zones between forests and villages. As the trees grow, local people can harvest and use the wood rather than cutting down the gorilla habitat for the resources they need. PIC provides Strong Roots with support and Dominique gets the work done where it counts most.
Of course, support for conservation can come in a variety of forms – including art. That leads me to David Petlowany, a sculptor with talented hands and a very big heart. As in past years, his work was part of the live auction at the Fete, and bidding is always fierce.
Conservation isn’t easy, and there are times when it involves one step forward and two steps back. But, “Small Steps” in the right direction, with the right people, really do make “Big Changes”.