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Fauna & Flora International’s Dr Chloe Hodgkinson and Dr Ros Aveling describe how it feels to encounter a mountain gorilla in the wild, and explain why it is so important to conserve these magnificent animals.
As our regular followers will be aware, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is currently running a crowdfunding campaign – backed by vice-president Sir David Attenborough – to support our vital work with mountain gorillas.
Here, we catch up with Dr Chloe Hodgkinson (star of the campaign video) and Dr Ros Aveling (FFI’s Deputy Chief Executive) to learn more about mountain gorillas and their conservation.
If you haven’t already, please do visit the campaign page to find out how you can help us with this vital work. In return for your support we are offering a selection of exclusive perks, including signed items by FFI vice-presidents Sir David Attenborough, Stephen Fry and Rove McManus.
My dad used to drag us out into the wilds of Yorkshire and up various mountains from a very young age, and that’s where my love of nature comes from – the feel of clean fresh air and beautiful wild habitats, usually with the wind and rain on your face!
I think a lot of the pleasure comes from feeling more in touch with nature and our environment rather than being shielded from it as we usually are.
As young zoologist, inspired by early Attenborough films in the 70s, I found myself living in the middle of the Sumatran rainforest with my new husband and several confiscated orang-utans, gibbons, sunbears, slow lorises and a myriad of other creatures. We developed this into a broader conservation and education initiative, handing over to our Indonesian colleagues three years later.
On our way back to the UK we stopped off in Rwanda…and stayed, living in a tiny tin hut on the edge of the Virunga Volcanoes, developing a conservation project for Fauna & Flora International to protect mountain gorillas, as Attenborough had requested.
With our own baby ape on the way (my son, Martin) we continued on to the UK, only to return to the DRC, toddler in tow, to set up the gorilla conservation work and a chimpanzee project.
Protecting great apes requires us to preserve their habitat, and these natural areas in turn provide humans with a wealth of important goods and services that are important for wellbeing and prosperity – from climate regulation to clean water, food, medicine and other materials.
In return, great apes play crucial ecological roles within their respective habitats; so by conserving these species we can ensure that these ecosystems are robust and healthy.
What’s more, we have a moral obligation to the creatures with whom we share a common ancestor and so much else.
I am most inspired by the unsung heroes: the conservationists who plug away in very isolated and basic field sites but who get very limited recognition of their efforts and achievements outside a small community of people.
They do it because they have a real passion for the wildlife and their environment, and a real drive to help make it better – not for any personal glory but simply for the greater good and a belief that it’s the right thing to do. How inspiring is that?
I had just got a job working for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. I’d had a frustrating two-week quarantine period following my flight to Rwanda (something all researchers go through given their more prolonged contact with the gorillas), listening to people come back from the gorillas every day full of excitement and stories.
When I was finally able to go up I was with my new boss, whom I was keen to impress with my professionalism. The group we were visiting had just had an interaction with a lone silverback gorilla, and my boss and the trackers were keen to identify him. Because they were so focused on the lone silverback male – and so used to working with the habituated group – we were in the group before I even realised it.
I was just standing on a path and a gorilla walked nonchalantly past me! Nobody else turned a hair; they were too busy trying to identify the strange silverback male. It took all the self-control I had not to grab somebody’s arm, shake them and shout: “It’s a gorilla! Right there! How awesome is that?”
I worked with the mountain gorillas for the next two years, and not a day went by when I didn’t experience that same feeling of excitement every day we joined the group.
Primates are often found in areas of extreme human poverty, and implementing conservation programmes under those conditions is very difficult – a development element is almost always necessary, not just for ethical reasons but also to give people access to options other than hunting and eating primates, or destroying and degrading their habitat.
Yes, and the challenges have changed over the years – from a fashion for orang-utans as pets (stimulated by the Clint Eastwood films) through to forest destruction for palm oil and, in particular, waves of conflict in and around their habitat. Mountain gorillas, for example, have historically suffered (and still do suffer) from human conflicts in their range states of Rwanda, Uganda and DRC.
My first baby was an orang-utan. On the day I arrived in Sumatra I had to care for a tiny orang whose mother had been killed by loggers. When I later had my own sons I was worried that I would treat them like baby apes – until I realised that was exactly the way to treat them!
I feel very fortunate to have been able to live and work with all of the great apes, and to see how their social behaviour is aligned to the habitat in which they have evolved.
Watching a mother and baby orang-utan move together though the canopy, or a young gorilla climb all over his tolerant silverback father – you are changed forever by these things, not least by the speculative and curious look in the brown eyes of a mountain gorilla.