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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Angelique Todd, the gorillas' friend

Congrats to Angelique!

From the Telegraph
Angelique Todd left Tunbridge Wells for the central African rainforest to study western lowland gorillas. Now she is on speaking terms with a male called Makumba

Angelique Todd, a 43-year-old mother from Tunbridge Wells, has been called the 'gorilla whisperer' for the effect she has on Makumba. This is misleading because when she sees Makumba she doesn't actually whisper, she makes a soothing sighing noise, accompanied by clucking. It's like an invisible barrier between her and the gorilla. He may come close – really close – but Todd stays calm, no matter what. And Makumba, 400lb of alpha male, turns away.

We are deep in the African rainforest, in the Central African Republic (CAR) near the border with Congo-Brazzaville. The air is thick with sweat bees. Makumba is a few yards from where we are standing, eating termites, popping them in like snacks, and I am close enough to see some escape down his chin. A hundred feet above our heads, in the tangled vines up a tree, is another gorilla.

The thing about being so close to wild gorillas is that you must not run if they come at you. You are supposed to stand still and look at the sky. I ask Todd if Makumba has ever charged her. 'Oh yes, many times,' she replies. 'All silverbacks have different ways of being scary. Makumba charges really close to you, and then he jumps even closer. It's rather shocking.'

Todd has achieved something remarkable. As the head of the Primate Habituation Programme (PHP) in the Dzanga-Sangha Forest Reserve in the CAR, she has accomplished what had eluded scientists for decades – habituated western lowland gorillas for both tourism and research. Habituation means gaining the trust of wild gorillas so they don't run away. And this is significant because although western lowland gorillas are the sort most commonly found in zoos, little is known about them in the wild.

Todd is not the first to win the trust of this subspecies, but few have matched her success (or can claim, as she does, to manage a staff of 46 BaAka pygmies). Her achievement derives partly from persistence. To say it took her a long time is an understatement. She joined the World Wildlife Fund's gorilla habituation programme in the CAR as a young research assistant in 2000. She first spotted Makumba and his family later that year – he has three 'wives' and 10 children. His initial response was to disappear; for two years she hardly saw him at all. Every day she trekked for hours into the forest and only saw 'fleeing backsides'. By the time the job was finally done in 2007, Todd was 38, had been promoted to head of the programme – and Makumba had become her life.

The next day I meet Todd in her office near Bayanga, a dusty village. The capital, Bangui, is a 10-hour drive away. Outside in the trees, monkeys squawk. Inside, exposed wires hang from the plaster above my head. Todd, a girlish woman with round cheeks and wide blue eyes, is drinking tea from a plastic cup with a lid to keep the bugs out and smoking a cigarette. She likes to do both, very regularly, throughout the day.

She is tough: her job combines sweaty treks – she spends about three days a week in the field with the gorillas – with three days doing admin in the office (Sunday is her day off). She has had malaria 25 times, dengue fever and a bot fly infestation. 'They burrow into your skin. They were all over my body, just hundreds.' Almost every day she is bitten or scratched by something – driver ants, thorny vines, leeches. Her forearms and ankles are covered in scars and scabs. 'We've had researchers who have always wanted to study gorillas and they come here and walk straight back out again. They can't cope.'

Home for her and her partner Nestor and their daughter Poppy, nearly two, is a house near Bayanga which is equipped with In the Night Garden DVDs, Sainsbury's Gold Leaf tea and the music from Fiddler on the Roof – reminding you that she is a creature as much of Tunbridge Wells as of the African rainforest. 'My mum is very concerned about ballet lessons for Poppy,' she says.

This is a woman who, aged 25, had her thumb, a finger and a large part of her right forearm bitten off by a chimpanzee when she was working as a keeper in Port Lympne Wild Animal Park, Kent. She was standing outside the chimp's cage when it grabbed her arm, pulling it through the bars. Now the arm is fully functioning but badly scarred.

This proved the making of her. 'It made me more determined to come to Africa and do what I really wanted to do.' Working for WWF, her aim is to locate main groups, learn about their habits and biology, and get them used to humans so she (and her guides) can introduce the gorillas to other visitors – tourists, wildlife photographers, researchers. To this end she has spent the past 10 years living in a country not everyone has heard of ('I said to friends, I'm going to the Central African Republic, and they said, "Yeah, but where in central Africa?" '), doing a job many thought too difficult. 'No one wanted to work in the conditions of the lowlands,' says Dr Richard Carroll, a vice-president of WWF. 'It's tough out there.' Now Todd has been named a WWF 'true conservation hero'.

When Carroll first visited the Dzanga Sangha region as a PhD student and researcher for WWF-US in the early 1980s he was appalled by what he found – 'Lots of gorillas and elephants, but also poachers' camps on every stream.' The rainforest had been impenetrable for thousands of years, but new roads, built largely by logging companies, had created another kind of opportunity.

Bushmeat, the common term for tropical wild game, which includes monkeys, gorillas, chimpanzees, cane rats and other animals, is a popular and potent source of protein in this part of Africa. The carcases of slaughtered apes are sent, for huge profit, to markets in Kinshasa and Yaounde, and for that matter, on aircraft to Paris and New York.

'I was very worried,' Carroll continues. 'There were carcases of elephants everywhere. The hunting would have led to an empty forest.' Carroll had planned to habituate gorillas as research for his PhD. 'But I couldn't justify it if the next person they saw came along with a gun.'

So he shelved that idea and along with Michael Fay, from the Wildlife Conservation Society, spearheaded a conservation drive focusing on an area of rainforest straddling the south-west of the CAR, Congo-Brazzaville and Cameroon. The Dzanga-Sangha Forest Reserve and the Dzanga-Nodki National Park were created in 1990. Dzanga-Nodki is supposedly free of chainsaws, hunters, poachers and miners – the Congo basin has diamonds, gold and coltan (used in mobile phones) – while the Dzanga-Sangha reserve is designated as the place for locals to hunt for food.

There was another part of the strategic plan. Carroll argued that the way to save the lives of hundreds of apes and elephants, to stop trees from being chopped down and to help locals and marginalised groups – in this instance, the BaAka pygmies, traditional hunter-gatherers who depend on the forest for food – was 'responsible' tourism. Which means sharing, not exploitation.

Joining forces with the CAR government, 'We established a legal framework so all [wildlife] tourism revenue that came into the area would be shared with the local community to emphasise that wild animals are more valuable than dead ones,' Carroll explains. The split was 40 per cent for community associations; 50 per cent for salaries for local people working in the park; 10 per cent for national-level conservation programmes.

In addition, the BaAka pygmies were recruited as gorilla trackers. 'No gorilla would be habituated if it wasn't for their skills,' Carroll says. Adult BaAka males are 4ft tall and weigh about 90lb, and it's only when you watch them at work that you realise how superior they are. Walking a mile through the forest takes us the best part of an hour.
A BaAka does it in no more than 20 minutes (in flip-flops). Their heightened senses can even pinpoint individuals from footprints left in mud.

Not everyone is persuaded by gorilla tourism. Some believe it makes gorillas vulnerable to human diseases. A common cold, for example, can be life-threatening to a wild gorilla. But Carroll remains upbeat. 'This isn't tourism for tourism's sake,' he stresses. 'It's tourism for conservation's sake, for cultural survival's sake – for the BaAka people – and to keep the forest intact.'

Angelique Todd was an independent, strong-minded child in a musical family. But she and her older brother Sean preferred the outdoors. Their love of nature was shaped by family holidays in Pembrokeshire, walking the coastal path. (Sean is now a professor of marine mammal physiology and behaviour at Maine University.) Born in Surrey, Todd went to the independent Sutton High School and achieved the Queen's Guide Award, the ultimate honour in guiding.

She read zoology at Aberystwyth, where she became interested in parasites and spent a year of her four-year course studying faeces, firstly of wildcats at Kilverstone Wildlife Park (now Banham Zoo) in Norfolk. 'But as much as I love cats, when you study them in the wild, you don't see them at all. They are such elusive animals, it gets a little bit frustrating. And I was studying cat poo, basically.'

She became fascinated with primates after befriending a spider monkey called Eric at Kilverstone and working with PhD students studying howler monkeys in Costa Rica. She returned to Aberystwyth to finish her degree, then did a masters in primate conservation biology at Manchester University while volunteering at Port Lympne, owned (with its sister park, Howlett) by John Aspinall, the late millionaire conservationist and gambler. In April 1994 Todd was outside a cage feeding chimpanzees when Bustah, a 33-year-old chimp, made a sudden grab at her sleeve. 'He bit my thumb first, then my finger and then started on the rest of my arm.' Eventually a member of the public managed to distract the chimp long enough for Todd to make her escape.

The first thing she said after a five-hour operation to repair her arm was, 'Don't let them touch Bustah,' recalls her mother, Isabella, who lives near Tunbridge Wells. 'Angelique was afraid it would have repercussions for the chimp. But Aspinall was too fond of his animals to put them down. Bustah was sent to a wildlife park in South Africa.'

Todd says Aspinall was 'very sorry and said, "Sue me for all you can". And he invited me and my family around for cream tea and cucumber sandwiches. So I did sue him, because it was a simple health and safety issue – there was a huge gap in the cage.' She was awarded £75,000 damages. After repaying debts – a student loan and £26,000 to the government for sickness and housing benefit while she was off work – she spent £25,000 on a deposit for a house.

Her father died two years after the accident. 'There were a few problems with finances. We lost our family home, so I bought a house with my mum near Tunbridge Wells.' The remaining £7,000 funded her early years in the CAR.

Gorilla tourism is not new in Africa. Since 1970, when the American zoologist Dian Fossey became internationally renowned for her work with mountain gorillas (the hairier type that live in the Virunga Mountains where Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda meet), some 40 groups have been habituated. The 'mountain gorilla tourism model' is generally accepted as the main reason why mountain gorillas survive today.

But tourism built around western lowland gorillas is another matter. 'Mountain gorillas live in hills and you get those long-distance views so the gorillas can see you and see that you are not threatening to them, and that is a really important component of habituation,' Carroll explains. 'In the lowlands, where you can't see forest for the trees, you can come upon a gorilla a yard away before either of you knows it, which is dangerous.'

Even walking in tropical forest is a job in itself. There is hardly a path that does not require a machete, and nowhere outside the main track where anybody over 5ft tall can stand upright. You not only have to bend double, but you must also keep your head up, looking out for elephants.

The other hurdle is that unlike mountain gorillas, western lowland gorillas don't live in stable families. So one day you could see individuals A, B and C, and the next day individuals D, E and F, and ABC are off somewhere else. You can't guarantee you will see the same individuals over and over again. The upshot has been many attempts to habituate lowland gorillas, but few successes.

Dr Diane Doran-Sheehy, an associate professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University, New York, habituated two groups at the Mondika Research Centre, along the border of the CAR and Congo-Brazzaville, in 2004 as part of a research project. And one of the leading experts on western lowland gorillas, Magdalena Bermejo of the University of Barcelona, habituated the first group of lowland gorillas in central Africa, at the Lossi Gorilla Sanctuary in Congo-Brazzaville, in 2001, with JD Rodriguez-Teijeiro. She studied eight families (two for responsible tourism). But they went on to lose more than 90 per cent of their gorillas to an Ebola virus outbreak.

Some years earlier, in 1997, Bai Hokou, a profoundly remote camp in the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, became the HQ for WWF's Primate Habituation Programme. Originally built by Dr Carroll in the mid-1980s, and now Todd's home in the field, Bai Hokou is a collection of wooden cabins and very basic facilities – the shower, for example, is a waterfall. The nearest shops are a two-hour drive through the wilderness, so staff live off a diet of tinned sardines and Laughing Cow cheese.

In 1998 the PHP came under the direction of Chloe Cipoletta, a primatologist who had previously habituated chimpanzees off the Ivory Coast. Later that year, Cipoletta started working with a small group of gorillas close to the camp. But in 1999 the group's silverback was attacked, probably by a leopard. Half of his forehead was ripped off and his back badly scratched. He recovered (although he was killed in 2004 by a male gorilla in a fight over a female), but the group of four females and their offspring started disintegrating.

In 2000 Todd, by now studying for a PhD, joined Bai Hokou as a research assistant. The deal was that she could collect data in exchange for habituating a second group of gorillas. She first spotted Makumba in November that year. The silverback was asleep in a clearing in dense forest and his daughter was playing with some oleander. Todd remembers the scene in almost mystical terms: 'I thought, oh my God, this is paradise.'

For gorillas, habituation comes in stages: fear; avoidance; aggression; and finally, indifference. By 2003 Todd and her pygmy trackers had worked through the fear and running away stage. It was at this time that Makumba's behaviour changed. 'He started being aggressive,' Todd recalls, 'but I didn't feel particularly worried. It wasn't until around March that he became highly aggressive. We work as a team and the other guides were getting some rather bad charges and I was thinking, it's fine, it's fine, and then one day he gave me a really, really bad charge and it was very scary.'

She says she can normally stop him from charging by talking. 'Not that he understands what I'm saying, it just makes him forget what he's doing – that's my theory, anyway. So yes, he knows my voice. I'm the only one who talks to him. All the trackers think I'm absolutely dippy.' By 2007 she had built a rapport with all of Makumba's family. 'The females are the most elusive,' Todd says. 'They take up to seven years to habituate.'

Todd has since habituated another gorilla group and trained other guides, who help her fulfil the original plan of gorilla tourism. The way it works is that three tourists at a time are taken into the forest to observe the wild gorillas for an hour or so, from a distance of about 20ft, at a cost of about $300 per person. The maximum is 12 tourists a day. 'We've had people cry with joy at seeing such a fabulous sight,' she says. 'Others are so petrified they don't say a thing.'

It is very labour-intensive. A staff of 50 (excluding the BaAka) work from two camps: Bai Hokou and Mongambe. Trackers are required to monitor the gorillas 24 hours a day, 'because if we lose them we spend days finding them again'. Guides are needed for the tourists. And the PHP has become a magnet for scientists, documentary filmmakers and wildlife photographers. 'Each camp costs $100,000 to run, and gorilla revenue last year was around $80,000 – that is why we're so reliant on donor funding. But we've doubled the size of the programme to the point where we can see it could be sustainable and bring in revenue.'

One evening, I walk up a dirt track to Todd's house, an airy, modern building that is anomalous in its size and amenities – fridge, electric lights – but is still surrounded by deep forest and wild elephants. This has been her home since having Poppy. She met Nestor, 37, an administrative assistant for WWF, in the late 1990s. Their relationship started in 2007. Nestor is from the Bantu tribe, and hadn't seen snow before the day he landed at Heathrow in January last year to attend the birth of his daughter.

Nestor works in Bangui, which is 300 miles away. They see each other once a month; otherwise they use Skype. Once a fortnight he sends a car with vegetables and nicer cheese than Laughing Cow.

Todd is frank about how motherhood has changed her. 'For me the ideal life is to be in the forest, but now I have a more village-based lifestyle, which is hard. For the first three months after having Poppy, I tried to live on the camp [at Bai Hokou] but it turned out to be too difficult. We had some elephants push their trunks through our windows, and then of course we had scorpions, cockroaches and centipedes, and I hadn't counted on that panicky feeling of protective mum.'

But there are still difficulties in raising a child here: fear of conjunctivitis and intestinal worms, malaria and TB. And there are constraints from spending her time among Bantu people. 'There's a belief that you must not carry a child on your shoulders after four o'clock because it makes them vulnerable to spirits in the air. I respect it.'

She works six days a week, nine hours a day (she has a nanny with a giant smile, Mama Ange, a local mother of five). She started today by distributing pay to the BaAka (£2 a day: above the national average), then drove to Bai Hokou in her Toyota pickup, led a seven-mile trek to Makumba, and will soon be writing a PowerPoint presentation for a group of German donors arriving tomorrow, before replying to emails for tourist requests. Right now Poppy is 'playing' with Pinky the kitten, and during moments of high tension, Todd leaps from her seat to intervene. She is feeling tired and thoughtful as she drinks her beer. 'There are definitely tough times,' she says. 'But to gain the confidence of a gorilla family in the wild is a real honour.' She smiles, showing a rare willingness to acknowledge her achievement.

And the future? 'If it was just me, I'd stay here for the rest of my life, but Poppy will need schooling and at some point I will have to move on.' But not just yet. Makumba is 31 and all the books say wild gorillas live to about 35 years. 'My plan is to stay here. It will be very difficult when Makumba dies. I want to be here while he's around.'

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