Middle Schoolers Learn from Renowned Wildlife Biologist

It’s not every day you get to ask your mom to teach your class. But Middle School Science Teacher Ethan Vedder got to do just that this week, when he invited his mother, Amy Vedder, Ph.D., to speak to his class about her career in wildlife conservation, specifically her decades-long efforts to protect the mountain gorillas of Rwanda.

Dr. Vedder was in the Peace Corps in the 1970s with Ethan’s future father, William (Bill) Weber, Ph.D. They were both teaching in a small school in rural south central Zaire. Beginning in 1977, with sponsorship from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the pair began studying Gorilla beringei beringei in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.

The scientists noticed that the population of mountain gorillas had declined drastically, from 450 in 1959 to just 275 in 1973. Partly due to government-directed cash crop farming, the gorillas had lost a great deal of their habitat, and some researchers thought that extinction was inevitable.

But Dr. Vedder and Dr. Weber studied the situation further and saw that there was still sufficient habitat to sustain the gorilla population, if it was not encroached upon further. They decided to work with the Rwandan government to protect the existing lands and offer them an alternative to raising cattle. They suggested that tourists might pay to observe the gorillas. They would be led by trained park rangers, and the activities would help support the local community. After much negotiation with the government and the national park service, the Mountain Gorilla Project was established. The tours became one of the first examples of ecotourism, with very low impact on the gorillas themselves, and established a source of much-needed income for Rwanda. 

Forty years later, the mountain gorilla population has rebounded, from 270 to over 600 in the same study area, and more. And the Mountain Gorilla Project has expanded into a multi-national collaborative that only gets stronger with each passing year.

While in Ethan Vedder’s class, Dr. Vedder spoke about her studies in gorilla ecology, and also invited the students to take some time to discuss the topic of what science could be done to determine why the gorilla population declined. The students talked in small groups and then shared their ideas with the rest of the class.

 Dr. Vedder discussed how each gorilla’s “nose print,” or pattern of wrinkles above their wide nostrils, can be used to help distinguish them from one another. To the students’ delight, she also demonstrated the two most frequent vocalizations the gorillas make: a low grumble, which is a sign of contentment, and a sharp-pitched cough, that serves as a warning. Dr. Vedder said she found herself making the low grumbling when she was among gorillas she felt comfortable with, and that she occasionally barked a cough at a curious infant if it strayed too far from its mother toward her.

“To see the students’ enthusiasm about wild animals is inspiring,” Dr. Vedder commented while at OES. “To see it in the students' eyes and hear it in their voices is something that gives me hope that future generations will continue to relate to and care about nature.”

Drs. Vedder and Weber now work to inspire new generations of conservationists around the world, teaching graduate students at Yale’s School of the Environment for the past 10 years.

You can read more about their work in two books: In the Kingdom of Gorillas and Gorilla Mountain: The Story of Wildlife Biologist Amy Vedder. Both books are available in the Middle School Library.

Visits like this one from experts in their field are supported by donations to the OES Fund. Thank you, OES Fund donors!