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Understanding community engagement is key to conservation

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund has long believed that helping local people is a crucial part of conservation and has built major programs in education, training, health and related areas in recent decades. To take this work to the next level the Fossey Fund recently hired Sarah Tolbert –  an expert in studying the relationships and interactions between people and conservation – to serve as community engagement manager.

“It is great to be with an organization that strives not only to implement community-oriented conservation projects, but also to better understand the linkages between well-being and conservation, which have not been well-studied scientifically,” says Tolbert.

So, in addition to building upon and expanding the Fossey Fund’s ongoing community work, Tolbert’s goals include expanding our research efforts into formally testing the impact of community projects and determining which programs best help build long-term community ownership. “We’ve come very far in our abilities to monitor and study the gorillas, and now we want to expand that kind of scientific effort into our community projects,” she adds.

Training future social scientists and community leaders

“In terms of the bigger picture, I want our Karisoke Center to not only be the leaders in gorilla research in Rwanda, but also the place to go to understand what is happening in the communities around the park. Karisoke is already a leader in training future conservation scientists and I hope to see this extended to training future social scientists and community conservation practitioners as well.”

Tolbert’s work will also extend to the Fossey Fund’s efforts in nearby Democratic Republic of Congo, where we are working to save the dwindling Grauer’s gorillas, most of which live in areas that have not received formal protection. Tolbert says she is excited to help us expand our work engaging and helping local communities there, a critical part of our model for successful gorilla conservation.

Sarah Tolbert (left) has worked extensively with communities in Congo and elsewhere in Africa

Tolbert has an impressive background including extensive work in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer and a Fulbright scholar, as well as a joint master’s degree in both environmental management and global affairs from Yale University. Most recently, she worked as community forest coordinator with Strong Roots, a Congolese conservation nonprofit that works with communities living near gorilla habitat.

She has also worked with the International Gorilla Conservation Programme and had numerous experiences seeing gorillas in the wild. “There really are no words to describe it. They are such powerful, yet graceful and playful animals. The most incredible experience was when I was standing in the middle of the forest and all these gorilla infants started climbing down the trees around me. It was amazing.”

Maurice Ngiramahoro, the Conservation Education Program Manager, transforms hula hoops into disappearing habitats during a Fossey Fund conservation course at the Kampanga primary school, located near the border of Volcanoes National Park.