Partners In Conservation (PIC) is an organization based at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Columbus, Ohio. PIC has been a dedicated supporter of Gorilla Doctors since 1995. On the eve of their annual fundraiser – the Rwandan Fête – we are pleased to share the following conversation between PIC Co-founder and Manager, Jeff Ramsey and Gorilla Doctors Chief Marketing Officer, Amy Bond. Jeff and Amy have known one another since the inception of PIC, and they traveled together to Rwanda in 2004, long before Amy was working for Gorilla Doctors. As you will read, their conversation was a fun trip down memory lane!

If you are interested in ‘attending’ the Rwandan Fete from the comfort of home this Saturday (September 25, 2021), you can purchase a ‘Fete from Home’ ticket here or check out the amazing range of items in their online auction, live all week!

Jeff Ramsey on one of his earliest mountain gorilla treks in the 1990s! Photo courtesy of PIC.

AMY: Hi, Jeff! How wild that we are having this conversation after so many years of knowing one another. It feels kind of full circle. For our readers not familiar with PIC, tell us a little about PIC’s history. How, when and why did you begin? How is the Columbus Zoo involved?

JEFF: Amy, this is too much fun. So, Partners In Conservation started back in 1991.  One zookeeper and three docents came up with a plan to help mountain gorillas in Rwanda.  We approached the Zoo Director to see if this was something that would fit at the Zoo.  He was excited to have PIC at the Columbus Zoo and thought that this was a great model for what zoos should be doing to help animals in their native range, not only gorillas.

AMY: What was PIC’s primary mission or goal when you first started? How has it evolved?

JEFF: In the very beginning, our primary mission was to help protect and study mountain gorillas.  It didn’t take long to begin to understand that we had to widen our focus.  PIC was only a couple of years old when the Rwandan Genocide happened.  With all of the devastation across the country, it was clear that saving gorillas could not succeed without looking at the entire ecosystem.  Animals, habitat, and local people are all part of the equation.

AMY: PIC was an early and leading example of a conservation organization partnering with people in local communities – the name alone – Partners In Conservation – was almost radical at the time! How did you guys understand that this approach was so critical for the long-term survival of mountain gorillas?

JEFF: The interesting thing is that it didn’t seem so radical to us.  The realization came when we considered poaching (illegally hunting animals or using forest resources) from the poacher’s perspective.  Why are they poaching?  Is it a choice, or is it to survive?  Our position is that nearly all are poaching simply to survive.  If my family is hungry and cold, how can I meet those basic needs?  The most obvious answer is to extract resources from the forest.  So, if we can partner to facilitate options where poaching isn’t necessary, then both wildlife and people win!

AMY: Can you tell us about the kinds of projects you support and how they complement one another?

JEFF: On the surface, many of our projects appear to be solely human-focused, but if you follow the thread, the result is a benefit to animals and habitats, too.  We work with many cooperatives surrounding the national parks.  One of my personal favorites is working with beekeepers surrounding Nyungwe National Park.  Even though beekeeping inside the forest is illegal, it continued because that is how it was traditionally done.  Far too often, sparks from the burning grasses used to make the smoke to calm the bees resulted in accidental forest fires.

Our efforts focusing on improved husbandry of bees, modern tools and techniques, plus quality control of the honey, have benefitted the beekeepers and their families.  Part of the process was that our beekeeping partners moved their hives outside of the forest, so humans no longer need to enter the forest to collect their honey.

Rwanda has an amazing history creating beautiful baskets.  By purchasing these baskets (following Fair Trade standards) to sell in the U.S., we are able to create a market for some Rwandan basket makers.  The money that they make from the sale of their baskets allows them to purchase items that they need in the local market, and eliminates the need to go into the forest.

PIC meets with basket weavers in Rwanda. Photo courtesy of PIC.

AMY: PIC has been a loyal supporter of Gorilla Doctors for many years. When did PIC and Gorilla Doctors first begin working together?

JEFF: PIC and Gorilla Doctors began working together back in 1995!  The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (now Gorilla Doctors) was a team of one veterinarian, Dr. Jim Fowler.  He had the opportunity to hire a Rwandan veterinarian but needed a partner to pay the salary.  We loved the idea and agreed to provide the funds.  Our partnership has slowly grown to help pay the salary for one gorilla veterinarian in each of the three mountain gorilla range countries (Rwanda, Uganda, and Democratic Republic of Congo).

AMY: I’m going to get personal now. You and I were in Rwanda together in 2004, long before I was with Gorilla Doctors.  Any memories stand out for you?

JEFF: I DO remember that trip!  How can it be that long ago?  I love being able to introduce people to Rwanda for the very first time.  The night of the army ants at Gisakura, climbing to the top of Mount Bigugu, and trekking to see gorillas. And you were so full of great questions!

AMY: That was my first time to Rwanda and to see mountain gorillas! Seeing the mountain gorillas was a dream come true, I’d been imagining that moment since I was 12! But you know, what really stayed with me were all the incredible people we met. It was one mind-blowing moment after the next that clearly stayed with me…

JEFF: Your wide-eyed wonder was fun to watch as you took in each new experience as we moved around the country to visit project partners.

AMY: (laughing) I was pretty naive back then, wasn’t I? Don’t answer that! What is one thing that has really surprised you over the years traveling to the region?

Amy (far right) and Jeff (left, facing away) checking in for flight to Rwanda in 2004.

JEFF: I never expected to feel as connected as I do to Rwanda.  From my first visit, I just fell in love with the people and the landscape too….and seeing mountain gorillas was over-the-top!  I had read so much and watched movies that I couldn’t believe that I was actually sitting in the bamboo with habituated mountain gorillas.  My first visit was five years after the Rwandan Genocide, so to witness the phenomenal rate of rebuilding and growth since then is impressive.

AMY: Tell us about your annual fundraiser, the Rwandan Fête. What year did it start and how has it grown?

JEFF: So, this takes us back to the question about when PIC and Gorilla Doctors began working together.  We agreed to fund the salary of a veterinarian, but truth be told, we didn’t yet have all the funds to do that!  We had also agreed to pay the operating expenses for an orphanage, for children who had lost their families in the genocide, so we needed to do some fundraising, and the Rwandan Fête was our solution.

In the beginning, we invited all of our friends, Zoo staff and volunteers, people in line at the grocery store – anyone!  We may have had 100 attendees back then. In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the audience had grown to over 500.  We are so thankful for everyone’s support.

Rwandan Fete in 2019. Courtesy of PIC.

AMY: I started coming to the Fête when I was in college. I can’t wait to attend this year and see how it has grown. I also can’t believe I am now attending on behalf of Gorilla Doctors. Talk about full circle!

JEFF: We’re so happy that you are going to be with us this year!  Who would have thought, way back when, that you would transition from attendee to representing one of our partners? Although I’m sure that we asked you to volunteer at those early Fêtes. Selling raffle tickets or helping with the Silent Auction!

AMY: I did volunteer at one! I think I was folding napkins or something like that!

JEFF: We have an incredible group of volunteers who help with every aspect of the Rwandan Fête.  Their help makes the event possible, and keeps our expenses low so that we can use every dollar possible to fund conservation.

AMY: Can people who aren’t able to attend in person still participate?

JEFF: Absolutely!  There are actually two ways to participate.  #1) 2020’s event used a virtual format.  Not knowing what 2021 would hold, we added a “Fête from home” virtual option.  So, no matter where you are, you can either attend or watch the recorded version of the event from the comfort of your own home.  #2) is the Silent Auction.  We use an online platform, so anyone can bid on items from their phone, tablet, or computer.  The Silent Auction features handcrafted items from Rwanda, experiences, artwork, and more.  We also offer options to donate to our efforts of planting trees, helping pay a gorilla veterinarian’s salary, buying school supplies, and more.  It’s quite a list!

AMY: Okay, last question, what is your long-term vision for PIC?

JEFF: For over 30 years, PIC has remained true to its original mission to protect mountain gorillas, preserve habitat, and help local people prosper.  We believe that when local people see that conservation includes their concerns, they are much more likely to participate in conservation initiatives.  PIC is definitely going to continue with those efforts.

We have also been working with partners to help the Grauer’s gorilla for quite a few years.  With the recent reporting about the dramatic decline in their numbers over the last two decades, we need to be focused on efforts to reverse that decline while applying knowledge gained from protecting mountain gorillas. I’m excited about the future and our continued partnerships with groups like Gorilla Doctors, as well as all of the new opportunities that will come our way.