Unless we have the opportunity to experience things firsthand, we are influenced by what we read/hear/see in the media

Ms. Chloé Cipolletta, Program Director, National Geographic East Africa Fund

by Maria Grazia Cangelli

Your work has brought you to Africa, which for many years has become home for you and your family: can you tell us your story?
Although I ended up working and living in Africa, I was not initially drawn to Africa per se. I was born with a passion for animals. As a kid, I spent countless hours watching ants, bringing bread to pigeons and leftovers to stray cats in public parks. By the time I was 18 we had already lived with an array of pet-friends, including hamsters, guinea-pigs, turtles, fish, birds and of course Ugo, our dog. All this in our apartment, in downtown Rome. When the time to choose my university course came, Biology was a pretty obvious choice and from there to knowing I wanted to study animals in the field, it all came very natural. It was with some luck, the good word of a renowned researcher and some audaciousness in writing letters to complete strangers that I was offered the opportunity to study the behavior of wild chimpanzees in Ivory Coast. The catch, I was told: “if you want to come you must commit to staying two years in the field” (while a 3 to 6 months data collection would have been enough for my project requirements). I did not hesitate. Having been offered that opportunity most certainly marked my life and shaped my career. I later understood very well the reasoning behind this time requirement: staying for a short period would have meant that I’d only have time to learn about, rather than contribute to, the project during my stay. Later on I certainly made good use of this lesson learned. Returning to Rome in 1996, my close friend Alberto introduced me to something which had started to become popular during my long stay in the forest: the internet. “You can find anything here, what would you like to find?” I wrote primate + job, and this is how my first internet search landed me to the University of Wisconsin web page Primate-Jobs and in my first job in Africa, working for WWF with western lowland gorillas in the Central African Republic (CAR). So this is really how my story in Africa begun.

For much of your professional life you have worked at the WWF “Primate Habituation Program”: can you explain what the work entailed and what is the relevance of such programs?
The habituation of wild animals is a process which consists of gaining their trust through a series of repeated peaceful encounters with the same individuals. It requires much patience and knowledge of the animals, to locate them regularly and to find the most suitable places/situations to establish the early contacts. These initial encounters are particularly important as they may determine the animals’ perception of the human observers. Habituation is the first step undertaken by most researchers wishing to study primate behavior in the wild and it is the preliminary work needed to develop gorilla tourism, allowing visitors to approach seemingly undisturbed wild gorillas.
This was the focus of my work for 9 years (from 1998 to 2006) with the WWF Primate Habituation Program at Dzanga-Sangha, a protected area complex of over 4,000km2 of tropical forest in the south west of the Central African Republic (CAR). Part of the Congo Basin, Dzanga-Sangha is known for its rich biodiversity, including a high density of large mammals such as elephants, gorillas, forest buffaloes and bongo antelopes.
The objective of the program was to develop a controlled form of gorilla tourism, based on the tracking and viewing of selected groups of western lowland gorillas and other primates. Gorilla tourism has the potential to generate significant revenues, crucial for the management and protection of the specific areas where gorillas survive—as is demonstrated quite well in east Africa, where mountain gorilla tourism earns millions of dollars annually. Most programs also include a system of revenue sharing whereby a set percentage of tourism fees (10% at Dzanga-Sangha) is allocated to a community fund for projects of public interests, aimed at reducing local dependence on the unsustainable use of forest resources and increasing the support for the protection of the area. Gorilla tourism also helps raising the profile of a specific area at the national and international level, generally leading to additional support for its protection. It does not however come without risks, including increased risk of disease transmission, of stress-induced illness and increased vulnerability to poaching as gorillas stop fearing humans. These risks must be carefully evaluated and addressed before initiating such programs and sustained throughout time, adhering to the IUCN guidelines for best practices in great apes tourism.
Throughout their range gorillas are threatened and Dzanga-Sangha is no exception: illegal hunting and habitat loss and degradation are the most pressing threats. In this context, gorilla tourism is one of the activities implemented within the broader goal to protect the forest ecosystem and to promote well planned sustainable development which does not deplete the natural resources.
Today it may seem surreal to imagine gorilla tourism in the CAR, when for the last 4 years the focus of the news (the few news from CAR anyhow) has been the civil war which has ravaged the country, claiming a high death toll, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and worsening the already precarious conditions the country was in before the conflict. Yet as incredible as this scenario seems, with continued support from WWF throughout the war, the Dzanga-Sangha staff has somehow secured the protection of the site including that of the gorillas, which by now have been viewed by thousands of visitors. It is a small light in the midst of a very dark situation: there is at least a very practical reason to protect this resource which in time of peace will be able to secure jobs and generate much needed income.

You are presently the Program Director for the National Geographic East Africa Fund: what are your main tasks in this role?
National Geographic Society is widely known for the magazine, documentaries and the TV channel. Few people know that it is actually one of the largest nonprofit scientific and educational institutions in the world, providing grants to support science, exploration and conservation worldwide. The East Africa Fund was established in 2015 with the objective to increase research and conservation opportunities in the East Africa region (including Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and DRC). Research findings, conservation achievements and challenges reported by our grantees have the unique opportunity to reach a global audience through our international publishing partners and extensive social media programs. In my role, I reach out to regional institutions and individuals involved in research and conservation in the area, presenting the grant program and identifying sound research and conservation projects which should be encouraged to apply. I am presented with a variety of research questions and conservation approaches people in the area are testing, implementing or would like to initiate: I review their drafts or “pre-applications” and, when needed I provide feedback to improve the application, also when projects are rejected (to explain why they were rejected, in order to help improve capacity to design stronger projects). We have a particular focus on building capacity for grant writing, given that many actors are already effectively engaged on the ground but may be less competitive when applying internationally for a grant, due to limited language and presentation skills.

What did you think of Africa before going to live there and how did your personal experience shape your perspective?
Thankfully, I don’t think I had a well-formed, preconceived idea of “Africa” before arriving in the continent. Having had the chance to live and visit several countries in Africa makes it even harder to think of Africa as one. My experiences in Cote d’Ivoire, the Central African Republic and Rwanda (to name a few) are completely different and my perspective is still being shaped as I write today, from Kigali, Rwanda. I can however say that what is mostly shaping my perspective is not so much linked to the political boundaries, but to the environmental, social and economic context I have found myself in. Living in the middle of a forest, in a village or in a city has exposed me to drastically different ways of life and of interaction with people. In Cote d’Ivoire I lived for 2 years in the forest, very isolated from what surrounded the park, but in daily contact with chimpanzees that I had come to know more than my human neighbors. It was a beautiful and intense experience but one which I came out of knowing I did not want to continue in an exclusive way: I wanted to also be an active part of society. In CAR, while still living in the forest and regularly following gorillas, I felt close to the BaAka community, mostly through the workers and their families, involving myself where I could in initiatives outside the gorilla program. Witnessing the perspective of hunter-gatherers at the cross-road with ‘modernization’ (relative to the CAR reality…) has shaped my perspective on human-kind more than on Africa. I have felt awe, admiration, despair, disappointment and disillusionment often simultaneously. Today, I live in the safety and comfort of Kigali, a relatively modern city which strives to be part of The Future. Life here could not be more different from what I experienced in CAR. As a significant example, the overwhelming feeling of hopelessness, that nothing is ever going to change is here replaced by a strong drive to get somewhere and a pride in what has been achieved. One of many striking contrasts.
So, overall I try to keep an open mind, looking at each context without idealizing or demonizing it, trying to understand some parts of it from my limited perspective.

What do you think people in the West have difficulty to understand of Africa in general and of Rwanda in particular?
In general I think that, unless we have the opportunity to experience things firsthand, we are influenced by what we read/hear/see in the media. It seems that for a long time the mainstream media in the West chose to focus on a limited perspective when covering news from the continent, mostly focusing on wars, famines and more recently terrorism. Thus I am not surprised that people still react worriedly when I say I live in Rwanda, because the first thing that comes to their mind is the genocide. That this happened over 20 years ago and that since, the country has made tremendous efforts and reached significant development achievements does not seem to make the news somehow. Nor that actually Rwanda is a very safe place today.

Do you miss Italy? What are your projects for the future?
I can’t say that I miss Italy, as it has not been part of my everyday life for over 20 years. However, each year I have returned home, even if often for a 2-3 weeks visit. And while the main drive has been to be with my family and friends I am certainly glad that, being originally from Rome, visiting family also means getting a breath of the culture and history which is an important part of my identity.
As for the future, it’s hard to say, but I will figure it out with David, with whom I have shared my life over the last 18 years and with our son Sami, who’s now a happy 7 years old with dreams of living in a village (though for those who know it, that may also be the influence of Minecraft!).


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