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Saving the mountain gorilla

Updated Monday 9th May 2011

The Saving Species team hear from Ian Redmond on protecting mountain gorillas in Africa, including the deaths of Dian Fossey and Digit

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Copyright The Open University

Text

 

Interviewer

Ian, first of all could you just quickly tell us where it all started, your background, interest in gorillas?

Ian Redmond

Well yes, I can summarise that briefly.  I have been a gorilla-holic since 1976 when I had the good fortune to go and work as Dian Fossey’s research assistant in Rwanda and what was then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, and working with mountain gorillas at that time were barely known to the outside world beyond one documentary that was half Dian Fossey and half Birute Galdikas looking at orangutans.  But while I was there I had the good fortune of being the gopher who was told to gopher the BBC when David Attenborough, before his knighthood, came to film for Life on Earth.  So, I had the enormous pleasure of taking David Attenborough and the BBC crew to meet the gorillas and was there holding the microphone during those iconic scenes.  So, that introduced me to natural history film making and I’ve been involved with both gorillas on the conservation side and with helping to make documentaries about them ever since.

Interviewer

And when did you first know that gorillas were in plight?

Ian Redmond

Well my first day in the field, believe it or not.  I arrived late at night having walked up the mountain in the dark with a couple of local guides who were warning me that Dian Fossey was crazy, you know, and it turned out that no-one turns up at camp after dark.  It’s just it’s in the middle of a forest, buffalos, elephants, anything around, so you don’t do that.  So that was an unusual beginning, but the next day I was sent out with the person I was replacing, a traveller called Tim White who had been helping Dian, and instead of finding gorillas we found poacher footprints and Tim explained that the policy was if you find signs of fresh poaching you follow those signs and you destroy any snares and if possible capture the poachers or confiscate their equipment. 

So, my first day in the field wasn’t as I thought sitting watching gorillas and taking research notes, it was tracking poachers, raiding their camp when they settled down to rest, and there were three of us so we couldn’t exactly surround them but we formed a wall and ran at them yelling.  And I had in my daypack my Cornwall Constabulary police whistle which I use in case you get lost in the mountain, you need to whistle, which we gave to the tracker, so he was blowing the police whistle and I was yelling and we chased the poachers away.  Fortunately they knew the script, they ran and we confiscated their spears and their dead antelopes and went back down to Karisoke.  And then the next day we found the gorillas and I met my first family of mountain gorillas which was group four led by the patriarch, Uncle Bert, flanked by the young silverback, Digit, and the first gorilla I actually saw was an infant called Titus being chased by his younger brother up a tree, so that’s why I saw him first because he came up a tree.  And that moment was obviously etched in my mind.  It was like being invited to join a family picnic.

Interviewer

I was going to say, Ian, before we talk about the conservation, what does it feel like especially at that time when so few people had seen mountain gorillas; what does it feel like to look in the eyes of another ape?

Ian Redmond

I think you mentally redefine who you are.  I firmly believe that gorillas are non-human beings.  We’re human beings and most people think of that as one word but of course it’s two words, human beings, and if there are human beings you have to concede the possibility that there might be non-human beings.  And in my view and I think most people who have worked with great apes and probably with elephants and cetaceans, whales and dolphins, these large-brained long-lived animals are non-human beings.  They know who they are, they have self-awareness, they can plan at least some way into the future, they can remember things way into the past and I think we should respect that more. 

But on that first day as I was saying it’s like being invited to a picnic where people are sitting around eating or relaxing, sunbathing, literally hands behind their backs soaking up the rays and the kids are climbing trees and playing chase and wrestling.  And my job at that point was to start learning the faces because every gorilla has a distinctive face, so I was trying to sketch the folds of skin above the nostrils which are what we call the nose print in order to learn who was who, because you can’t take behavioural data until you know who is doing what to whom.  So, the first thing is your individual recognition and that was my job for the day, but it was just such an amazing privilege for a young naturalist.  I would have gone to study anything if someone had said, come somewhere exciting, we’ve got some research, but as it turned out it was gorillas and I was last there as you know a few weeks ago because I can’t stop going back!

Interviewer

So again, it’s very poignant, you talk about it’s like visiting a family picnic and you are eye to eye, shoulder to shoulder with a creature of great sentience, so what does it feel like when you see a group of animals like that slaughtered, families broken up, kids orphaned, parents killed; what does it do?

Ian Redmond

Well, it was just over a year since that first idyllic encounter, a year of similar such idyllic encounters, when I was on an anti-poacher patrol, tracking poachers who were setting snares, not for gorillas but for antelope, and Namai, the tracker who was with me turned a corner in the trail, we’d just destroyed one snare and he said, ah waliu Ngagi, and Ngagi is a Swahili or Kinyarwanda term for gorilla, but at that moment I couldn’t actually think what he meant.  I couldn’t quite grasp that they’d killed a gorilla and I looked over his shoulder and there was the body of a gorilla, and it was a young silverback.  And I looked to see the face but the head had gone, so I was looking at an empty raw socket and it looked like it would be Digit, the young silverback, who was called Digit because his finger was slightly crooked, probably caught in a snare when he was a child.  So, I looked for his hands and found stumps because they’d taken the hands, because at that time in the ‘70s some foreigners visiting Rwanda would buy gorilla hands or skulls as gruesome souvenirs, and the poachers knew this.  A trader in town had said oh we’ll give you $20 if you can come back with a gorilla head and hands, and so these guys are out setting snares for the bush meat trade and killed a gorilla.  People in Rwanda don’t eat gorillas, so it wasn’t killing a gorilla for meat as they do further west in Congo and Gabon and Cameroon and so on, this was killing for a demand for gruesome souvenirs. 

And finding the body of someone who I’d known for a year as a friend, who was someone who would come and sit near me and watch what I was doing while I was taking notes on what he was doing, and that was just a very easy friendship.  And I use the word deliberately because I think when two beings, whatever their species, are comfortable in each other’s company and actually seek out each other’s company….  Now, we would never approach them closely, we would get to a point where we could see them but he was so used to me and other researchers, and because he was a young silverback without a peer about the same age to play with particularly, I think he enjoyed the company and he would just come and sit and be relaxed next to me or show an interest in what I was doing.  And finding someone that you knew that well, decapitated, hands hacked off, was quite a turning point in my life.  And the second, almost inconsequent, turning point was to go and find Dian who was also looking for poacher trails in a different part of the forest and explain to her that a gorilla she’d watched grow up from infancy had just been killed. 

So, yes, that was a turning point for both Dian and myself, but it was also a milestone in gorilla conservation because a few days later was when the BBC and David Attenborough came to film for Life on Earth and David came back to the UK and talked to what was then the Fauna Preservation Society, now Fauna and Flora International, and said we need to respond to this.  And Dian wrote to many of her contacts around the world, and set up the Digit Fund, and in the end the Digit Fund became the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, in the UK that’s now The Gorilla Organisation.  Fauna and Flora International joined up with other organisations and set up what was then the Mountain Gorilla Project and became the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, and Digit’s death was not in vain because many people responded with shock and horror, and since then the number of dedicated people of many nationalities, including Rwandan, Ugandan and Congolese, have been spending their lives trying to turn that around and we have succeeded with mountain gorillas. 

Their numbers are now going up every year, from a very low base and there’s fortunately still habitat left for them, but that’s in the Virungas and in the nearby BwindiForest in Uganda where the level of conservation is equal to the threat.  A little bit further west and to the south in Kahuzi-Biega National Park and in Maiko National Park in the DRC things are still very bad and numbers are probably declining, except in the small area of the mountain sector of Kahuzi-Biega where again enough money and enough courageous Congolese conservationists are protecting those gorillas and their numbers are beginning to recover.  But in the lowlands sector where the mines for coltan and tin and gold, all these minerals that we in the developed world buy, the guys who are controlling the mining are armed militias and it’s the people with the guns who are benefitting.  And despite the efforts of the Congolese government, the war in DRC is said to be over but there are still hotbeds of unrest in the east of the country and they’re mainly associated with the valuable minerals that are underground, and if you’ve got a workforce of men working hard for very little money and you’re a guy with a gun, what are you gonna do to feed them?  You’re gonna send out hunters to shoot animals.

Interviewer

So, I was very interested in your comment just a moment ago where you said as far as the mountain gorillas are concerned that the conservation is equal to the threat and the status of mountain gorillas is improving.  You talk about the lowland gorillas now where mining operations and presumably still bush meat is a threat, so what does it take, what needs to be put in place so the conservation is equal to the threat?

Ian Redmond

Well, the basic necessity is some form of security.

Interviewer

So, they’re going for the gorillas because they want bush meat for the reasons that you’ve explained, which is linked you claim to the mining operations and the need to get meat, so -

Ian Redmond

Well, it’s not just gorillas; it’s elephants, buffalos, every large mammal.

Interviewer

It’s everything.

Ian Redmond

And even now quite small mammals and reptiles and birds.  If it’s big enough to eat it’ll be potential food for the miners.

Interviewer

So, to conserve biodiversity in a country like that with the reasons that you explain, is it a multipronged approach where you have to have local governance sorted out, local protection sorted out, as you say international scrutiny on trade, and it’s absolutely everything?

Ian Redmond

It’s certainly a lot more complex than just protecting a national park and in this part of the DRC there is, most of the forces of the United Nations mission in Congo, which is the largest UN mission on the planet, and they are trying to keep the peace in a country the size of Western Europe or two thirds the size of Western Europe but a huge country, and in this area the unrest means that many people are displaced from their farms, so there are not refugee, but internally displaced people camps, so they’re refugees within their own country and they’ve been doing so, some of them, since they fled the atrocities in Rwanda in 1994. 

And what worries me is that their children are growing up in the culture of extreme violence where you get what you want with a gun or a machete, but that is a huge human rights, human problem, and people say well why are you worried about a few bloody gorillas when there’s all that going on?  And I think the answer is that when you look at how Rwanda has rebuilt itself, gorillas are at the centre of that country’s economy because they bring in tourists.  At the moment the Eastern DRC is actually open to tourists but until there is security the Foreign Commonwealth Office and the State Department will say don’t go there, and only those tourists who are prepared to ignore that and travel at least for a day trip from Rwanda or Uganda into Congo see the gorillas and then come back.  Lots of people do that.  I’ve done that with visitors who are prepared to take that risk upon themselves, because no travel company can recommend to a tour to go to a country that their government recommends they should avoid.

Interviewer
So, from your perspective through the lens of lowland gorilla conservation, what does it take to bring that type of security to a country, which obviously you’re saying requires bottom up, top down restructuring of the governance of Congo?

Ian Redmond

Well, this is happening and the UK is one of the biggest aid donors to the DRC and every effort is being made to build better governance systems, train the judiciary, pay the army, because again the army in Congo is made up of many former rebel groups that have been absorbed into the army, but if they don’t get paid their means of getting a living is to go out with a gun and it’s something to bring in food or money and it ain’t pretty!  So, there are many problems in that country, but for me one of the most inspiring things about going to the DRC is the dedication and commitment of the Congolese conservationists.  They live there, it’s their country, they’re not going to leave and they seem determined to go out every day and protect the areas where the gorillas are, not just in the national parks, there are community reserves which have been set up because people think, oh right, the world values gorillas, we have gorillas, we will protect them, help us develop.  And this is something that a number of NGOs or non-governmental organisations are working with those communities, helping them develop in a way that is extraordinary because conservation becomes their means to a better life.

Interviewer

So, this is really important, so actually you mentioned coltan and other minerals, gold and what have you, but actually the presence of gorillas, that the income, the foreign income coming in through ecotourism because of the gorillas could be their biggest resource in terms of sustained development?

Ian Redmond

It’s certainly a sustainable asset and it may be that outside of gorilla habitat if there are minerals and companies and I know there are now some companies setting up responsible mining operations.  That’s fantastic.  You want the country to develop but not at the expense of the environment and that’s partly because of the role that the forests and the gorillas play an ecological role in the forest, so you need both, you can’t just have an empty forest, you need a forest with its animal components as well as the plant components. 

Gorillas and elephants are seed dispersal agents so that the next generation of trees depend upon there being animals eating the seeds and dropping them in their faeces miles from the parent plant, and those forests provide water for the surrounding agriculture, they generate rain, evapotranspiration; water being drawn through the roots up through the plant and out from the leaves into the atmosphere generates rain both locally, but then if you look at a world map of weather patterns, you see that those rain systems that are generated by the rainforests actually move and water the world.  You can trace them back.  The rain in the UK can be traced back to the Amazon and what surprised me is that rain from African systems travels across the Atlantic to fall in the Amazon, so the weather systems are complicated and interlinked and we destroy them at our peril. 

So, we have to think both locally yes, that people there can, with conservation investment, improve their quality of life and maintain their supply of clean water and rain from the forest apart from other forest products, if it’s not in a national park they can obviously use medicinal herbs and sustainable use of those forest products, even if it’s a legal species to hunt, bush meat.  I don’t have any qualms about eating wild animals if it’s not an endangered species and it’s not in a protected area.  So, there’s lots of traditional use of natural resources which is entirely, not only justifiable but desirable even, but not the endangered species and not to an unsustainable level so that the next generation of people don’t have the resources that their parents have depended upon.

Interviewer

So, in a nutshell whether you are interested in gorillas or not, not just the Congolese, not just Africa but the whole world needs to keep gorillas alive because gorillas being alive mean that their forests are intact, if their forests are intact then both the ecology of the country and even, dare I say, the interlinked ecology of the world works.

Ian Redmond

Yes.  I was talking about rainfall, of course carbon is the other big thing that these forests do.  Trees absorb carbon and store it in the wood and the Congolese forests are taking in billions of tonnes of CO2.

Interviewer

So, all this is a justification that gorillas, eastern lowland gorillas are not just a Congolese problem, they’re a world problem.

Ian Redmond

They are and we are all implicated in their decline and we will all benefit if they survive.  So, yes, it’s now recognised that the health of the planet, the climate’s stability depends on the three tropical forest blocks of Amazonia, Congo Basin and South East Asia, and if the health of those forests depends on the howler monkeys and spider monkeys in Latin America and the gorillas and chimpanzees and other primates in Africa, and the orangutans and gibbons and other primates in Latin America, then yes you can say that the health of the planet depends on there being gorillas and other primates in those forests.

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Eastern lowland gorilla Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Rick Murphy, University of Wisconsin. Used with permission
 

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