By Gina McGalliardAbout a year and a half ago, Judith Harris went on a trip to Rwanda with her family. Having been a frequent traveler to Africa since 1996, she had always wanted to see Rwanda’s mountain gorillas.
The trip sparked her interest in the Atlanta-based Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, which aims to conserve the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Through mutual friends, Harris was able to meet the leader of the Rwanda portion of the organization.
“I just absolutely fell in love with the idea of what the foundation was doing,” said Harris. “We were very taken by the good that the organization is doing for the country.” In addition to protecting gorillas, the foundation seeks to educate people about the ecosystem and sponsors many community development projects. The organization was started by anthropologist Dian Fossey in 1978. At the time, there were only about 250 mountain gorillas left.
Last November, Harris was nominated and elected to serve on the board of the fund.
“I never really expected it to go through,” she said. “I’m very moved by it. I’m thrilled, actually, just thrilled.” Harris also said that even if she had not been elected to the board, she would have continued to support and be involved in the organization because she believes in its mission. Because she loves both animals and Africa, being part of the board allows her to bring these two passions together.
Regarding the importance of protecting gorillas, Harris said the gorillas are “an integral part of the health of the country.” She said that if Rwanda protects the gorillas, a natural resource, this in turn will be beneficial for the rest of the country.
Harris said what probably helped her be chosen was the fact that she has extensive volunteer and nonprofit experience. Despite spending so much time volunteering, Harris said, “I only get involved with organizations that I believe in 100 percent.”
As for what she intends to accomplish through her time on the Gorilla Fund board, Harris plans to focus, in particular, on combating the poaching of gorillas, which is a primary threat to the survival of the animals. In Rwanda, there is a group of people known as the charcoal mafia, which burns the habitat of mountain gorillas in order to make charcoal, which they can then sell. The Fossey fund is working to create heat alternatives so people will not feel the need to destroy the gorilla’s habitat.
The Foundation has also set up veterinary clinics for the orphaned offspring of gorillas that have been killed by poachers. “They mourn; they are like children,” Harris said of the baby gorillas. The clinic works to bring the gorillas out of their depression before releasing them back into the wild.
Harris stressed that poaching is not done because the people doing it need a livelihood. “It’s strictly exploitation of the environment,” she said. “It’s all an intimidation situation.” To combat the poaching, Harris said exposure to and pressure from the rest of the world are powerful weapons.
Harris has had the opportunity to observe mountain gorillas in person at Rwanda’s national parks, known as Parc National Des Volcans.
“They are so incredible to be around, and there is so much intelligence there,” she said. “You feel a mutual DNA. You know that this is a thinking, feeling, being. And they deserve your protection and support.”
Harris also expressed admiration for the country of Rwanda. “Visiting Rwanda made a great impression on me, that the government is really serious about presenting themselves as an enlightened country,” she said. “It’s a country that was in a terrible situation a few years ago, and they pulled themselves out of it, and I really respect that.”
Harris has visited countries all around the world, which is motivated by her desire to understand and learn more about different cultures.
“I am absolutely drawn to other cultures,” she said. “It helps you understand how we all come together. It’s all a big neighborhood.”
Unlike many others, she feels there is a whole world outside the usual tourist destinations of Western Europe.
“It’s not just about the food and the wine,” Harris said. “There’s a lot to learn out there.”
For more information about the Dian Fossey fund, visit www.gorillafund.org.