They fell in love at Swarthmore College, then went on to help save Rwanda’s mountain gorilla from extinction
For their efforts — emblematic of a Swarthmore education aimed at turning out graduates passionate about making a difference in the world — Amy Vedder and Bill Weber received honorary degrees.
When Amy Vedder was a student at Swarthmore more than 50 years ago and went on strike to protest the Vietnam War, the refrain from the college was one of support: “Go do something about it.”
Vedder and her husband, Bill Weber, also a Swarthmore graduate, took that lesson to heart as they pursued their careers and went on to become conservationists, she an ecologist and he a social scientist. Their interdisciplinary work together, stemming back to the late 1970s, helped to save the mountain gorilla from extinction in Rwanda. The couple helped the community see the benefit in turning Rwanda Volcanoes National Park into an ecotourism site that now generates $25 million a year in revenue, with people eager to go and see the majestic beauty of the gorillas.
For their efforts — which are emblematic of a Swarthmore education aimed at turning out graduates passionate about making a difference in the world — the couple, both 72, received honorary doctorate degrees at the college’s commencement Sunday.
“As for the gorillas, their population has more than doubled to nearly 700 now and still climbing,” Weber told the more than 400 graduates and their family members, who applauded, so much so, he had to pause his speech for a moment.
The couple, cofounders of the Mountain Gorilla Project, now known as the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, received the degrees jointly and delivered the speech in tandem, taking turns at the podium. Standing on the campus’ sun-splashed Parrish Lawn, not far from where they first met as undergraduates and eventually married each other, they talked about their journey.
Vedder, a 1973 alumna from Palatine Bridge, N.Y., majored in biology and was enrolled in Swarthmore’s vigorous honors program, where she said she was taught to explore and think deeply and broadly.
“I learned it was OK to ask questions, to not have answers,” she said. “To test ideas.”
Weber, a psychology major from Skaneateles, N.Y., told the audience he wasn’t near the student that Vedder was, though motivated by Swarthmore’s Quaker activist roots.
“Ultimately, my father lost a $100 bet to my brother that I was ever going to make it through college,” the 1972 alumnus said.
By the end of Vedder’s freshman year — he was a year ahead of her — they were dating and the day before his graduation practice, they got married on campus. Then they both entered the Peace Corps in Africa for two years, where they first saw gorillas and began to think about careers in conservation. They went on to get doctoral degrees from the University of Wisconsin Madison — he in land resource management and she in zoology.
Someone had heard them speak about conservation and the importance of working with the local community and suggested they go to Rwanda, Weber said. At the time, Rwanda Volcanoes National Park with the mountain gorillas was only bringing in about $5,000 a year, Weber said, and the number of gorillas, some of whom had fallen victim to poaching, had dwindled to about 270.
They worked in the park at a research camp run by Dian Fossey, the primatologist whose story was featured in the 1988 movie Gorillas in the Mist, starring Sigourney Weaver. Weber said they never worked directly with Fossey and noted that her views on conservation were different. She at times aggressively fought off poachers and feared tourism would hasten the gorillas’ demise because they are susceptible to diseases. Fossey was murdered in Rwanda in 1985, and the case has not been solved.
“She saw the local people as the enemy,” Weber said in an interview. “We found that the large majority of people thought the gorillas should be protected, too. Hardly any of them had anything to do with the poaching.”
The couple learned there were plans for a cattle-ranching project that would have destroyed much of the gorillas’ habitat. After 2,000 hours of direct observation of the gorillas, Vedder was convinced their numbers could be restored and the animals could benefit the local community. Weber and Vedder helped to convince the Rwandan government to at least give ecotourism a try.
The couple, who describe their work in their book In the Kingdom of Gorillas, said spending time with the mountain gorillas, who are vegetarians and generally gentle unless provoked, is a powerful experience, one that has moved them to tears.
“There’s nothing like gazing into the eyes of a wild mountain gorilla,” Vedder told Swarthmore graduates. “Gorillas opened my eyes and my heart to ... the wonder and awe of life on this earth.”
Tourism overall in Rwanda now generates more than $400 million in revenue annually, more than coffee, tea, and mineral exports combined, according to an article in Mongabay, a conservation news site.
It has created thousands of jobs and helped to rebuild the country after the genocide in 1994, Weber said. The silverback, a mature male gorilla, appears on the 5,000 Franc bill in Rwanda.
The couple, who currently live in the Adirondacks, in upstate New York, estimate they have spent eight years total in Rwanda over three periods, and they still go regularly. They are lecturers at the Yale School of the Environment, and every year one of them accompanies a small group of master’s and doctoral students on a nearly monthlong trip to Rwanda, where they observe the gorillas.
Vedder flew in from Rwanda late last week so she could speak at the commencement, and she’s heading back there on Monday.
While the excitement of the day for most students was getting their degrees, Alexa Bartlett, 21, a physics major from Austin, Texas, said she was also interested in what Vedder and Weber had to say.
“I appreciated how they talked about their work being at the intersection of science and social science, and how the local communities were integrated into and also very important to their conservation efforts,” Bartlett said.
Vedder told the graduates about the gender discrimination she faced as a woman in the sciences, so much so that she hid the awe and wonder she felt from her work, fearing it would erode her scientific credibility.
“It took me decades to let that out,” she said, “to let the humanity in my work be visible. I encourage you, don’t wait decades, ... let who you are into your work from the get-go.”
In a way, Weber said today’s graduates face far more challenges, such as climate change.
“Great complexity,” said Weber, who has been married to Vedder for 51 years, “brings endless opportunities for action. Pick a field, follow your passion, engage and do so with genuine openness, openness to different perspectives ... to mutual collaborations and hopefully long-lasting partnerships.”