Gorillas in the Mist

Through her work with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, world traveler Bryna Griffin MS ’04 develops land conservation programs with local communities in the Congo

By Margaret Donaghue

In 1967, Dian Fossey trekked deep into the Virunga Mountains and first sighted the elusive African mountain gorilla. It was a life-changing meeting for both species. Fossey would become famous as a remarkable animal researcher, a champion of the endangered apes, and a pioneer of modern conservation.

Nearly 50 years later, following Fossey’s footsteps, FIU graduate Bryna Griffin MS ’04 would rediscover the gorillas and redefine her own life. An experienced hiker, even Griffin was exhausted by the five-hour journey through deep mud and stinging nettles to reach the cool, steep mountainside where the gorillas reside.

“I walked through some tall brush, and, there, in front of us were the gorillas. A family was immediately visible in the mist—yes, they really were gorillas in the mist,” she recalled.

For the next hour Griffin sat, transfixed, watching and photographing the animals. She smiled as juveniles chased one another in the undergrowth. She spotted an enormous male silverback gently grooming an infant. As the great animals yawned, nursed and napped before her, she marveled at how much they share in common with their human observers.

“Sitting in the wet brush, smelling of sweat and crushed grass, I realized I was watching a real family. These gorillas were so closely related to me that I wanted to treat them as equals,” she remembered.

Seeing the gorillas transformed the young conservationist, already a world traveler who spent much of her youth in Thailand and did her environmental studies graduate research there, as well.  She realized that the Congo represents a last hope for large-scale wilderness.

“There are very few places left on Earth with this much forest, this much wildlife and this much left unknown,” Griffin said. “If you are interested in conservation you have to be interested in Congo. “

Griffin was not content with appreciating Congo from afar. She would soon leave behind a comfortable desk job in Washington, D.C., traveling to the heart of Africa to oversee part of Dian Fossey’s legacy.

Wetlands to Grasslands

Griffin chose FIU over Columbia University for her master’s degree in environmental science. Not only was FIU a better value, but she appreciated the department’s more individualized approach. Through FIU’s Asian Studies program, she won a $2,000 travel grant to spend summer 2003 in Thailand, studying the wildlife use of the Karen Tribe in Kaeng Krachan National Park.

Associate professor Mahadev Bhat, Griffin’s master’s thesis advisor, recalled that the year she traveled to Thailand was the year of the SAARS outbreak. “Bryna was one of the most dedicated and brightest students we ever had. She’s a great nature lover,” he said. “She was determined to go to Thailand for her field work – SAARS did not deter her from traveling to the Far East.”

Going back to Thailand as a graduate student was, in a sense, returning home for Griffin. She lived there for nine years when she was in grade school. Her parents were teachers at the International School Bangkok, where she graduated before returning to the United States for college. Living there helped prepare Griffin for a career of living abroad, teaching her, for instance, how to get by in a foreign place when you don’t speak the language very well.

At FIU, Griffin was involved with exposing others to foreign places of a different sort. As the teaching assistant for the Ecology of South Florida, she led student field trips to the Everglades and local nature preserves. “It was such a trip to take Miami city kids into the swamp, stepping in alligator holes,” she said.

“That is the kind of intense training and passion that our Environmental Studies graduate students build while in the program,” Bhat said. “Bryna is a great example of how a student uses what they learned in school to shape their career and outlook for the benefit of society.”

Soon after college, Griffin put classroom theory into real world practice as a grant manager for Conservation International, a non-profit organization devoted to protecting global biodiversity by creating partnerships between sustainable environmental programs and corporate donors. Traveling from Peru to Sierra Leone she assisted native people in developing and financing sustainable wildlife conservation programs. But Griffin longed to leave her office and paperwork to return to the fieldwork she loved.

The opportunity came in 2005 when Griffin read a proposal by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI). The plan was to create community-managed eastern lowland gorilla reserves in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The project and subsequent trip to Africa where she watched the gorillas reignited her commitment to conservation.

“As humans we have a unique ability to see and understand the effects we have in the world and we can make it better,” Griffin said, “There are a lot of practical reasons for conservation. I believe that if we don’t understand something, we shouldn’t be messing with it. And that’s true of our environment.”

Into Africa

That passion moved Griffin to accept a two-year contract with the DFGFI as the co-director of the Congo office in the eastern town of Goma along the border of Rwanda. Situated on the shore of Lake Kivu, one of Congo’s great lakes, and surrounded by lush mountains, Goma was once a popular holiday destination. In the past decade, much of the city’s infrastructure has been destroyed by Congo’s civil war, the deadliest armed conflict the world has seen since WWII, and by the aftermath of a 2002 volcano eruption.

Still, as a lake port city and center of local government, Goma serves as an important commercial hub. The local professional class works alongside a significant expat community from Europe, the United States and other parts of Africa, many of them working at NGOs like DFGFI.

Griffin works with local chiefs to help Congolese communities develop and finance local conservation programs using a three-part land use system. At the center is a nature preserve surrounded by a buffer zone encircled by a sustainable economic development area.

Land use – and abuse – are critical issues in the region. The eastern Congo has abundant mineral resources that are mined for electronics and goods in the United States and other wealthy nations. By any measure, the people of Congo should be prospering, yet the average person earns less than $1 a day. Because of weak governance and corruption, mineral wealth is in the hands of armed militia groups that have taken control of the mines and exploit local workers and child labor.

“It’s actually fuel for armed groups and perpetuates widespread corruption because so little is done to regulate it,” Griffin said. “So in a very direct way, the purchase of a cell phone in Miami or Chicago impacts the forests and people of the eastern Congo.”

In August 2009, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton visited Goma, calling international attention to “conflict minerals.” The international community must look “at steps we can take to prevent the mineral wealth from the DRC ending up in the hands of those who fund the violence here,” Clinton told reporters.

The ongoing war in Congo is a real threat to personal safety, political stability and natural resources. As recently last February, rebels attacked a DFGFI-supported radio station.

Griffin believes the conservation programs can actually promote greater political stability. The DFGFI conservation model creates jobs, provides education and improves public health, giving the Congolese people a real investment in seeing the programs succeed.

Since opening in 2000, the DFGFI in Congo has assisted in the creation of a primary school for orphaned children, a university which specializes in conservation education, health clinics and a clean water project. These programs employ about 400 people including rangers, teachers, and doctors.

“It’s an exciting, huge and ambitious, project, and I have a part in making it more effective,” Griffin said, but admits that working in Congo does present some special challenges. For one, she speaks neither Swahili nor French, although she is studying the latter.

“The language barrier is one of the hardest things,” she said. “Having grown up in Thailand I am used to getting around town on very little but at work and in meetings it’s been a major hindrance.”

The Congolese are a diverse, lively and passionate people, Griffin says. That passion, she adds, can be both the source of problems and the solution to problems. While she feels safe, she says she is always a little on guard.

“Everything is loud and slightly complicated,” she said. “Situations and fights can break out quickly and escalate more than you’d originally think. Bargaining over veggies in the market can be stressful and end up involving a dozen unrelated people yelling at each other on your behalf. On the other hand, that passion is often directed toward creative problem solving, ingenious solutions to what would seem a hopeless situation.”

For Griffin, one of the greatest joys of being at the Fossey Fund comes from doing conservation work in a natural environment that is like no place on earth.

“Working on these issues, particularly here, is really a dream come true,” she said. “When I’m having a particularly rough day, I visit the three orphan gorillas we have at the Goma office now.  I peek through their fence and watch them rolling around together, climbing their jungle gym or baby chest beating at each other.”

The orphans will soon move into the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education center. This latest DFGFI program is slated to open in 2010 in the nearby Tayna Nature Reserve with the goal of returning the animals to the wild, Griffin said. She added, “Gorillas are so rare and precious. We have to give them the chance to rebuild their population.”

Editor’s Note: Bryna Griffin recently left DFGFI and is developing research projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Margaret Donaghue is a writer living in Wilton, Maine.

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