In 2006, I was working as the field manager for the One-health Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project in central Africa when I met a woman at a party. She was another "ex-pat" of which there were relatively few, so we started talking. I discovered she was a talented artist who wanted to get involved teaching Rwandans about the critically endangered mountain gorilla. But she said something that got my attention: she wanted to "do something" for the gorillas, and not just about them. She wanted her work to be informed by what the scientists working in the field were up against. We started collaborating, trading ideas. Her name is Julie Ghrist, and within months she had launched her own a non-profit organization, Art of Conservation, focused on engaging children in one-health conservation.
In collaborating with Julie a whole new world (outside of science) opened up to me. I could see from the artwork produced by the children that there were key pieces missing in our conservation program for the mountain gorillas, and in my own thinking about how to make a difference.
For example, most people who entered the gorilla forest illegally went there for water, not for bushmeat, and certainly not to disrupt the gorillas. On the other hand, though we understood relatively few local people were involved in setting snares for gorillas (as opposed to setting snares to catch antelope), every child could draw an image of a gorilla being caught in a snare. This made us realize the oral history about snaring gorillas was still going strong. Lastly, the children viewed the forest as scary place; they had no desire to go there. They wanted to have safe and clean homes like the orphan baby gorillas our project cared for.
For more about Julie and her work, here is a fairly recent interview on Mongabay: Art Education and Health. She has since expanded her work to the Caribbean Basin. She moved her base of operations to Tulum, Mexico and her original non-profit is now run by her former Rwandan staff and renamed Conservation Heritage -Turambe.