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Environmental Crusader Speak: Tressa Arbow!

October 29, 2018

As a Fulbright Scholar Tressa Arbow spent time in Nigeria. Later as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda, she closely observed the much threatened Mountain Gorillas. Now in Seattle (Washington) she pursues her passion for marine and environmental issues. Here Tressa shares some amazing first hand insights ranging from Africa to the Pacific Northwest. She also highlights her concerns on carbon footprint, sea level rise, ocean acidification, threats faced by marine life – particularly the orcas and the importance of eco-tourism.PHOTO-2018-10-20-00-05-30

Q: What took you to Africa and where exactly and how long was it?

A: I don’t remember when I first became interested in Africa, but I know by the time I was in 6th grade I was telling people that I wanted to work there. What work I wanted to do changed over the years and still continues to change as I learn. The first time I went to Africa was in 2007. I won a Fulbright-Hays Yoruba Group Project Abroad scholarship after studying Yoruba language for two years at UT. I went to Ile Ife, Nigeria with a group of students from all over the country to study Yoruba language and culture for about six weeks.

The second time I went to Africa was when I moved to Rwanda as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was an Education volunteer, so I taught English to students and teachers for two years in a town called Mukamira in northwestern Rwanda.

Q: How important was your understanding of Swahili in adapting to parts of Africa you worked in?

A: I’ve only been studying Swahili for a few months now, so this is a new skill I’m developing. In Nigeria knowing Yoruba was helpful but I was at a university where most people also spoke English so it wasn’t crucial. Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda so that’s the language I studied for my Peace Corps training. In the town I lived in, knowing Kinyarwanda was important for communicating with neighbors, in the markets, in public transportation, etc. My colleagues at school spoke varying degrees of English, but many people outside of the Kigali and Butare don’t. Since I lived there for over two years I became comfortable communicating in Kinyarwanda and sometimes it was my only option.

Q: After years of unsettled environment how stable is the Rwandan society?

A: In terms of violence, Rwandan society is very stable. There are no major uprisings, protests, etc. It is also continually growing stronger and more stable economically. There are still some ethnic tensions underneath the political stability, though.

Q: How did the upheavals of the past impact the wellbeing of the mountain gorillas? Being a landlocked country how does that work for them?

A: Political unrest is a big problem for the mountain gorillas. There are two places they live: in a forest in Uganda and in volcanoes shared between Uganda, Rwanda, and DRC. When there is violence in any of those countries, the gorillas are at risk. Sometimes people fleeing violence actually kill them for meat, although I don’t think this is as common. Gorillas can be caught in snares and traps that are meant for antelope and other animals, and they can be driven into smaller areas as their habitats are destroyed either through violence or development. As humans move closer into areas where gorillas live, they are also at risk of contracting human illnesses. Currently the population is doing well, though, and even growing.

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Q: Do you believe eco-tourism is the way forward to protect threatened species like the mountain gorillas?

A: If managed, regulated, and secured properly, I think it’s a very important component of protecting them. Without tourism money coming in from people viewing the gorillas, it is unlikely (in my opinion) that the three governments mentioned above would be willing or able to spend money on conservation efforts. If done poorly, though, tourism can exacerbate the problem through some of the ways mentioned above.

Q: Why would anyone want to kill a mountain gorilla? Or is it the pressure on their habitat that is challenging their well-being?

A: As I mentioned above, accidental killings, habitat loss, and a desperation for meat are the main reasons. One other important one is the illegal trade of animals. Sometimes gorillas will be kidnapped (especially young ones) to be sold to zoos, people who want exotic pets, etc. Unfortunately kidnapping a baby usually requires killing an adult because the adults are very protective.

Q: Now back in Washington and focusing on the marine world – how different is it from the terrestrial environment? Are there any unique challenges that you are seeing in the Pacific Northwest?

A: The marine world is different from the terrestrial environment in that we don’t know as much about it as we do land. People also don’t understand the ocean as well as they understand land because they don’t live in it. Development is increasingly turning to the ocean as its natural resource of choice because land has been exploited for so long. The ocean is also more difficult to share because there are no clear boundaries like we have for land (not political boundaries, but geographic ones like the edge of a continent). Unique challenges in the Pacific Northwest that I’m familiar with are related to threats to salmon populations, infringement on tribal fishing and custom rights, industrial pollution in waterways, and the orcas.

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Q: What’s the status of Orcas? Are they under any threat/s?

A: The Southern Resident orcas are endangered. Currently I believe there are only 75 left. They only eat Chinook salmon, so part of the problem is that threats to salmon populations have a huge impact on the orca populations. Also, the water is so polluted from PCPs from decades ago that the orcas’ fat and milk are toxic, leading to high mortality rates for calves. This is another interesting case where tourism could help or harm. If tourism money went towards conservation efforts and business became invested in saving them, perhaps initiatives would happen faster. On the other hand, orcas are vulnerable to the noise from whale watching boats, strikes, carbon emissions, etc.

Q: How prepared are we to deal with climate change in this part of the world? What’s your vision for a safer global community?

A: I personally don’t think we’re prepared enough. There are too many coastal communities who don’t know the urgency of sea level rise, emissions, etc. Thankfully here in the PNW the aquaculture industries are invested in climate change mitigation because several years ago they started noticing that shellfish weren’t able to produce their shells because of ocean acidification (caused by carbon in the water). In my “bubble” individuals are doing a lot to change their own habits to reduce their carbon footprint, but until clean energy is incentivized and/or mandated we won’t be able to make the impacts we need. Washington is voting on a carbon fee during the upcoming midterms, so this could be an interesting thing to follow in terms of Washington residents’ opinions and awareness.

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