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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Congo is walk in the park for area gorilla researcher

Thanks to Cleve H for the link!
from my suburban
By Joe Sinopoli

Michael Stucker’s journey into the heart of the Congo jungle actually started as a wide-eyed boy, jockeying to get a better view of the animals at Brookfield Zoo.

“It was that gaze, the gaze of the gorillas,” he said. “And that struck a chord and made me want to learn more about them and protect these animals.”

Now 34, Stucker finds himself quietly stalking Western Lowland gorillas on their own ground — not as a hunter, but as a conservationist of the largest of the primates.

Stucker soon will head from Brookfield back to the Republic of Congo and Nouabale-Ndoki National Park as a volunteer researcher for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. Founded in 1885, the society manages about 500 conservation projects in more than 60 countries across the globe.

The Riverside Brookfield High School graduate — who also holds two bachelor’s degrees in psychology and primate behavior and ecology from Central Washington University in Washington state — became enamored with the great apes as a college student.

He was an intern caretaker there with the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, home of Washoe, the first chimp to learn sign language. During Stucker’s final semester, he was asked to prepare a lengthy presentation on gorillas.
And that, as they say, was all it took.

Stucker fired off a resume to the WCS’s Mondika Research Center at Nouabale-Ndoki National Park three months after he graduated college in August 2009 and arrived in the Congo on Jan. 1, 2010, as a volunteer research assistant. He stayed there for 16 months and is now counting the days until he returns May 26 as a paid staff member and site manager/project coordinator.

“I’ve been enjoying the luxuries of life and appreciating running water, telephone and Internet access and eating when and whatever I like,” he said.

A day in the jungle

Michael Stucker’s day starts early in the jungle.

At 4:30 a.m., he’s up and about checking the camp, making sure the cooks are preparing food and the rest of the staff has rolled out of their cots and shaken the scorpions from their shoes.

He then puts on his nurse’s cap and tends to the medical needs of the camp staff, including 10 pygmies from the Ba’Aka tribe, two Congolese assistants and one armed guard. Cuts and scrapes are cleaned, medicated and dressed. After all, this is Africa, and something that starts as small as a scratch can quickly get infected.

By 6:30 a.m., the contingent breaks into teams, each with three trackers and one of the assistants. One team begins the job of tracking the gorillas, which takes anywhere from60 to 90 minutes.

At that point, one of the trackers is sent back to camp for Team 2, which then sets out to relieve Team 1. The relief team then heads back to camp at 5 p.m. after quietly following the gorilla group for the day.

During that time, the teams collect data on behavior, diet, copulation and interactions between the primates. Stucker analyzes and enters the data, which is then relayed back to a conservation biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society for review.

Tourism helps fund primate research
Ecotourism plays a substantial role in the sustainability of the park. Run by the Congolese Ministry of Forestry Economy and the Environment and WCS, the ecotourism program provides revenue essential to the animals’ welfare and running of the camp, as well as anti-poaching efforts.

Groups are formed that allow two to four tourists to view gorillas for one hour per day, so as not to stress the animals, Stucker said. The group keeps a minimum of 70 meters from gorillas, and everyone is required to wear a surgical mask to minimize infecting animals with airborne diseases. Gorillas are particularly susceptible to human respiratory diseases.

In camp, rations for humans are limited. Breakfast is bread and water, lunch and dinner are usually rice and beans, spaghetti or canned corned beef. In fact, everything is canned.

Family and friends are missed

Stucker, who served in the U.S. Marines from 1996-99, said his military training laid the foundation for how he endures the hardships of living in the bush, such as the heat and poor sleeping conditions.

“Mainly, it helps with the separation from family and friends,” he said of his training.

His mother, Mary Stucker, said her son has always had an adventurous spirit, along with a love of animals. But mothers are required to worry about their children, even Marines.

“At one point, we thought he had malaria and we were very frightened,” she said. “But that wasn’t the worst of it. He also had an infection in his arm from his wrist to his elbow. People from several different churches were praying for him. God answered our prayers.”

RBHS science teacher Dave Monti inspired Stucker to go for his dream while he was a sophomore. The two recently reconnected for the first time since Stucker’s high school graduation.

“I didn’t hear from him until last year when he was in Africa,” Monti said. “I always encouraged him to follow your passion, and if you’re lucky, you can make it your career. It was very exciting to hear the things he was doing.”

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