Far and Near

Far and Near

The conservation movement is taking hold in unexpected sectors and Colby alumni are at the forefront, from Tanzania to Maine

By Abigail Wheeler '04 and Sara Blask '03 | Photos by Paul Swen

Environmental conservation and sustainable development aren't just trendy catch phrases for Corbett Bishop '93; they're his raison d'etre.

A former Texan and self-taught Swahili speaker who has called Momella, Tanzania, home for nearly 10 years, Bishop has been at the forefront of the African conservation movement, working tirelessly to bring water to populations occupying areas in need. "Water is the penultimate issue in sub-Saharan Africa," Bishop said, "and the astronomical population growth is serving to further strain this precious resource."

At greatest risk, according to Bishop, are Masai pastoralists who "live in perfect harmony with wildlife." The local populations have been forced to rely upon poorly constructed dams and pipelines built during the colonial era, and the maze of infrastructure has been in disarray since Tanzania's independence in 1963.

Until now. Bishop's current project, located in West Kilimanjaro Longido, a stretch of land near the Kenyan border, in the foothills between Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru, entails rehabilitating the network of pipelines in order to provide water for the Masai and their coexisting ecosystem. "They [the Masai] are so in tune with the environment and its conservation that their timeline is based on the environment. They essentially consider their family milestones in terms of birth and death and what's going on environmentally," Bishop said.

Another of his projects, located near the Manyara National Parks and the Terengeri region, involves similar water rehabilitation and restoration components but also includes a more commercial aspect. The plan involves setting aside land for wildlife, land that will simultaneously manage the ever-growing cattle population as well as provide habitat for the Masai and their wildlife. The area is fragile. Its sustainability has been compromised by population growth and the expansion of farming, which has depleted the water supply and stripped the land of grasses for cattle grazing.

As an American in East Africa, Bishop is still politically marginalized. As a non-citizen, he can't vote or run for office. And Tanzania's colonial past makes race an inescapable issue. For that reason, Bishop said, he is most effective advocating through the government or a large aid organization.

Corbett Bishop '93, right, with Masai guide Mr. Pello in Tanzania, where Bishop is working in the increasingly diversified conservation movement.
Illustration by Jon Salton
Despite the inefficiency of the middleman, Bishop considers himself lucky. "I get to work with a younger generation of Africans who are very forward-thinking. Conservation in East Africa is moving outside the national parks . . . and into the villages. We need a solution that's broad-based and includes both the lives of people and the wildlife. I'm very, very optimistic."

Although parliament-based assistance for his projects is rare since money is in short supply, Bishop does receive commitments that prevent legal issues from flaring.

The empowerment of local villagers is critical to the sustainability of their populations, he stressed. Tourism, bringing money to poor villages and provinces, provides a means of surviving financially. Inevitably, this places pastoralist villagers and their environment in a precarious position, where cultural preservation is threatened by exploitation. A delicate balance between the two extremes, however, is not far-fetched, Corbett said. It's a reality. "We're searching for some sort of compromise between conservation and survival," he said. "Good conservation ethics, and therefore cash influence from tourism, will provide a better lifeline to these people than chopping down trees or killing animals for their meat. This will benefit people in the long term."

Many of Bishop's own international clients help support these villagers. Besides attending to environmental consulting and conservation projects, Bishop, owner and founder of Corbett Bishop Safaris, serves as a mountain and safari guide in one of the most sought-after wildlife regions in the world. He employs local Masai as guides. All are quick to convey to clients the delicate issues surrounding water and wildlife competition. In this way the commercial world meets the complex and fragile sphere of conservation.

Bishop's trips aren't your average walk in the park. "Many people who come are interested in the Out of Africa experience," Bishop said. "There's wonderful wildlife but also wonderful comforts; they can get both." Some come to climb 19,335-foot Mt. Kilimanjaro, others for the traditional 4x4 safari experience in the bush. Still others prefer walking trips using camels as both mounts and pack animals. Save for the leave-no-trace environmental ethics exercised in the field to prevent further ecological damage, no two expeditions are alike.

Just after graduation from Colby in 1993, Bishop, born and raised in Houston, headed west,to the imposing Cascade Mountains of Washington state, where he served as a mountaineering guide for world-renowned guiding company Mountain Madness. It was there that he met the late Scott Fischer, who would eventually serve as Bishop's connection with famed Mt. Everest IMAX director David Breashears. Several years later, in 2000, Breashears called on Bishop and his Tanzanian colleague, Allan Mbaga, to organize logistical support for his next IMAX film, Kilimanjaro: Mountain of Many Faces. Bishop likened the experience to "moving a small village [of more than 200 people] up a huge mountain every day . . . but it was absolutely incredible," he said.

Bishop first traveled to Africa in 1988 with his family, and in 1994 he was offered a two-year contract with Mountain Travel Sobek to guide climbs up Kilimanjaro, one of the world's Seven Summits and the largest freestanding mountain in the world. Bishop was guiding within two days of his arrival. He lost track after 50 summits.

Conservationist, expert climber and safari guide credentials aside, Bishop is also a master of all things family and children. His wife, Camilla, a painter, and their two children, Luca, almost 3, and Ella, 1, make frequent sojourns to the bush, where they revel in the magnificent wildlife. "Africa is the best place to raise children. My children have seen giraffes, buffaloes and lions, and all they do is ask to go to the bush. It's not 'I want to watch Barney,' it's, 'Let's go the bush!'" he said.

There isn't a doubt in his mind that he and his family will be in East Africa for the long haul. "This is my adopted home," Bishop said. "Africa is coming into a dawn, things are changing here, and I've got a lot invested in the future of this country. This place is inspiring."