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Ian Redmond. Photo via Ian Redmond.
Ian Redmond. Photo via Ian Redmond.
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  • Gorilla family in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Photo: Ian Redmond.
    Gorilla family in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Photo: Ian Redmond.
  • Gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Photo: Ian Redmond.
    Gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Photo: Ian Redmond.

Joy for the natural world

Sarah Stirk

18th February 2014

Ian Redmond, 'ape man', talked to Sarah Stirk about his joy in the natural world, and especially his passion for Mountain gorillas - the only ape (other than humans) whose population is rising.

It's an amazing feeling when a gorilla accepts you into the group, and chooses to come and investigate, and sit near you.

It's not every day I chat to an honorary ape with an OBE. With a dignified brow and beard, Ian Redmond would be an impressive Silverback, and like a gorilla under the peering eye of a scientist, he's not quite sure about the attention:

"It's kind of weird having people wanting to know about me", he chuckles, "but if it helps to do the job, I'll go with it."

In an extensive career as researcher, biologist, and conservationist, through to documentary filmmaker, author, engaging public speaker and worldwide ambassador for many endangered species, Ian has dedicated his life to protecting the natural world with passion.

A unique partnership

The prestigious - "slightly embarrassing and very flattering" - Ian Redmond Conservation Award has been created by GRASP, the UN Great Apes Survival Partnership.

Led by UNEP/UNESCO, GRASP is a unique coalition of which Ian is co-founder and for much of its history, chief consultant.

At a recent meeting in Paris, funds were contributed by partners amounting to $30,000, aimed at "empowering people in great ape range states, for whom a $5,000 grant could really enable them to do something to help apes, and their own community too".

From tiny acorns ...

Born in Malaysia, Ian came to live in Beverley Yorkshire at the age of five, and grew up keeping caterpillars and running barefoot through the pastures and woods near his home.

In 1976 after studying biology and geology at Keele University, and a summer herding reindeer in Scotland, Ian secured the role of research assistant to Dr Dian Fossey studying several families of Gorillas at The Karisoke Research Center, high up in the lush, green, Virunga Mountains of Rwanda and Congo.

The Center lies in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park, giving the gorillas and their habitat legal protection, however the laws were rarely enforced. Illegal wood-cutting and poaching combined with rife corruption, habitat loss and disease meant that these gentle giants were, and are, extremely vulnerable.

An unusual introduction

Dian had been accepted by the gorilla group, and alongside chasing poachers through the jungle, inspecting gorilla droppings and studying parasites, Ian was introduced. He enthuses:

"On first entering the circle, it is like entering a family picnic. Adults are lounging, children are playing." He quickly learned to identify individuals by the creases above their noses, and employed imitation techniques, submissive behavior and vocal grunting that reassured the gorillas that he was no threat:

"I am a strong believer in inter-species friendships. It just takes curiosity and trust on both sides. It's an amazing feeling when a gorilla accepts you into the group, and chooses to come and investigate, and sit near you."

I lost a friend ...

On New Years Eve 1977 Digit, the young silverback in group 4, was found dead and mutilated by poachers, who sold his skull and hands for $20 to be used as ashtrays. Ian discovered Digit's body, and when asked about the incident, stops in his tracks, and recalls with sadness:

"It was the first time I had lost anyone close to me, I lost a friend. Scientists are supposed to be objective, not be engaged, and emotionally care about their animals.

"But if the animals are intelligent, social beings who have accepted you onto their midst, that is very difficult."

The death of Digit was a turning point in Ian's life, and spawned a huge surge of international interest. With what Dian described as "Digit's blood money" she created the Digit Fund (now the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International) to raise money for anti-poaching patrols on the ground.

Active conservation

As well as an acute awareness that poachers needed other means of income, Ian supported the philosophy of "active conservation" rather than what Dian "slightly scathingly called ‘theoretical conservation' ".

Friction arose between NGO's over where this funding should be placed: "Dian's concern was very valid. Teaching children about conservation is important, but a very long term strategy, and if short term security is not there, it's a waste of time, because by the time those kids grow up there won't be any gorillas."

His relationship with the notoriously tricky Dian, he says fondly, was "up and down. I tolerated her temper, she tolerated my slowness in typing up reports, and we remained good friends until she died."

His mentor and friend was murdered in her home at the research center in 1985. Her death remains a mystery.

The bigger picture

Just as Ian understands the intertwined workings of an ecosystem, he began to see the bigger picture, and that collaboration was the only way forward. He professes:

"I have gone from grieving the death of individual gorillas who I knew, to recognizing that that's not really a good criterion for protecting the gorillas - gorillas in general need protecting."

Driven by this broader vision, Ian wove institutional branches to create a canopy of "organizations and individuals who might otherwise see each other as disagreeing, to recognize that they have more in common than they do to disagree over."

He has established crucial conservation organizations, and in 1996 founded (and still chairs) The Ape Alliance, a coalition of over 90 NGO's and individuals. In 2001 he helped to launch GRASP, was appointed OBE in the Queens Birthday honors in 2006, and he served as Ambassador for the UN Year of the Gorilla 2009.

Elephants, frogs, bears

In tandem with his work for Gorillas, Ian is also renowned for his groundbreaking research with the cave elephants of Mount Elgon, which he says excitedly, "seemed to present an amazing biological phenomenon that had not, to my surprise, been studied, or even photographed before".

In amongst many other projects, including reintroducing orphaned polar bears into the wilds of Canada, and discovering new species of frog in New Guinea, he has continued to oscillate between the two.

The number of Mountain gorillas is increasing, "which is fantastic!". But they are the only apes with a growing population - apart from humans, that is.

The fragile habitats of great apes are now facing the threat of climate change, in tandem with what has been described as "a tsunami of economic pressure" from industries with an eye on their short term profits.

The economic juggernaut

He highlights that "trillions of dollars" are available to logging, mining, oil-drilling and palm oil companies that are destroying forests, and all of the species that inhabit them.

The big push for the next decade is ecosystem services, the trapping and storing of carbon, generating rain and biodiversity, products that can be harvested sustainably from a living healthy forest.

"If you add it all together per unit area, tropical rain forests can now earn more than if converted to agriculture. Apes are fascinating, but as seed dispersers, planting seeds they consume, and expel in their dung, they are also keystone species to keep forests healthy."

A fascination with every living thing

Whether communing with wild creatures, introducing David Attenborough to gorillas, negotiating with poachers, teaching Sigourney Weaver how to grunt or giving his time to journalists, Ian's ability to put human and beast at ease is reflected in his success.

Ian's commitment is firmly rooted in compassion and a "fascination with every living thing". This spirit of joy for the natural world, and ability to see beauty in 'form and function' is infectious - and enables others to recognize that every species on earth, including our own, are reliant on healthy ecosystems for survival.

With a career well deserving of a mighty beat on his chest, Ian says with a smile and a shrug, "I'm just a naturalist who likes doing stuff with animals."



Sarah Stirk is a film maker, reporter and photo-journalist with The Ecologist Film Unit.


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