Helping people helps animals By Jack Hanna

Rwanda is a beautiful country with an amazing spirit. I first visited its lush jungles in 1984 to see the majestic and endangered mountain gorillas. I instantly fell in love with the people and wildlife of Rwanda. Since that first adventure, my wife Suzi and I have returned almost every year; Rwanda has become a second home.

As a young boy I was enamored with animals, and I’m incredibly fortunate that my love for wildlife has also become my life’s work. Early on in my career, as the director of the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, I quickly realized that our zoo animals were amazing ambassadors for their cousins in the wild. We believed that if zoo visitors learn to love and respect animals, they will undoubtedly advocate for them. Our responsibility extended beyond the animals in our care — the zoo needed to be part of a global community working together to ensure a better tomorrow for all Earth’s inhabitants.

In 1991, Charlene Jendry, a lowland gorilla zookeeper at the Columbus Zoo, came to me with an idea of how we could help the wild mountain gorillas in Rwanda. I admired her vision and passion…and there were only 300 mountain gorillas left in the world. Without hesitating, I told Charlene she had our full support. She and a team of volunteers formed Partners In Conservation (PIC), and PIC has been one of the Columbus Zoo’s signature conservation programs ever since. Through meaningful collaborations and relationships with local people, we are proud to play a part in protecting mountain gorillas by funding salaries for gorilla trackers and field veterinarians, job training for local people, forest preservation efforts, and other socio-economic needs of the people.

Two of Central Africa’s primary animal-related challenges are the bush meat trade and deforestation. Poverty and a lack of jobs that pay a livable wage are also endemic to these areas. These seemingly distant problems are actually closely connected — they intersect and create a vicious cycle.

Witnessing firsthand the Rwandans’ daily struggle with poverty led our team to realize that Rwandan forests and animals are not often destroyed out of callous disregard or negligence; they are a casualty of widespread poverty in the region. The Columbus Zoo and PIC approach conservation holistically — in order to save the gorillas and other endangered Central African species, the local people need economically viable, long-term solutions for providing for their families.

One example is our collaboration with the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP)’s effort to improve and preserve the gorillas’ habitat. IGCP hires ex-poachers and uses their knowledge of the forest to help the gorillas — they have successfully removed over 5,000lbs of metal, plastic, and non-native tree species – all while providing for their families in a sustainable way. These men also identify snares and report them to the local authorities for removal.

Working together, we can accomplish much more than working alone. PIC’s partnerships with non-profits and conservation organizations, including the Gorilla Doctors and the Nyungwe Forest’s Beekeeping Project, allow us to broaden our impact and directly affect conservation outcomes. In 1997, 13 percent of the forest was destroyed by fires, many of which were caused by traditional beekeeping methods. To prevent these fires, PIC purchased modern beekeeping equipment and provided training that enabled beekeepers to collect 50 percent more honey — protecting the forest and helping the beekeepers better provide for their families. Since these changes in 2004, there have been no forest fires started by beekeepers.

One of our humanitarian focuses is the Ubumwe Community Center (UCC). My friend and hero, Frederick Ndabaramiye, had lost his hands to the rebels a few years after the genocide — and although his hands are gone, they could not take his spirit. In 2005, Frederick and his friend, Zacharie Dusingizimana, founded the UCC and provide education and job training for disabled adults and children in Rwanda, including an educational program to help both blind children and deaf children. PIC supports the annual operating costs, a hot lunch program, sports teams, and a brace/prosthetic program for children and adults attending the UCC.

The Columbus Zoo and PIC’s fundamental belief is that in order to achieve wildlife conservation success, you must first know, understand, and then empower the local human populations. It’s simple, really: helping people helps animals. Thankfully, the most recent mountain gorilla census reported growth, now 880 gorillas. I’m proud that we are playing a part in creating a long-term solution for the coexistence of people and wildlife.
PIC’s efforts have resulted in

· 700,000 trees planted

· 1,363 ex-poachers removing over 5,000 lbs of trash from the gorilla habitat

· 750 goats provided to ex-poachers and their families — allowing them to have a livelihood, milk, and fertilizer.

· 16 artisan cooperatives — support has reduced poaching and increased income for 400 families.

· 150 ex-poachers trained to become wood carvers — zero have killed again.

· 35,000 stoves provided to local people that use 75 percent less wood than traditional stoves —reducing the dependence on the forest.


Jack and his wife, Suzi, have filmed in Rwanda several times to help spread the word about the critically endangered mountain gorillas and Partner In Conservation’s efforts. They have even built a cottage at the base of the Virunga Mountains hoping to encourage tourism and provide lodging for visiting philanthropists, doctors, dignitaries, and the media. Jack Hanna is the Director Emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and host of Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild and Jack Hanna’s Wild Countdown.