In 2018, mountain gorillas were reclassified from critically endangered to endangered, and the latest census showed their population had exceeded 1,000 for the first time in decades. We caught up with Ian Redmond who worked alongside the famous conservationist Dian Fossey, and is now a leading world specialist in gorillas.
When did you know that working with wildlife was what you wanted to do?
According to my mother, even as a toddler I would go crawling along the monsoon drains around our home in Malaysia, and my boyhood in Yorkshire was spent bringing wildlife into my bedroom – jam jars of tadpoles and caterpillars. So, there was never any doubt that I’d find a way to work with wildlife.
You were lucky enough to have Dian Fossey as your mentor. What was the key thing that she taught you?
Dian taught me many things – she was a hard task-master – but what she said in her first letter to me, when pointing out all the difficulties of living in a cold, rainy, remote cabin, is what motivated her and motivates me still. She wrote, “The gorillas are the reward, and one could never ask for more than their trust and confidence at the end of each working day.”
When did you make the switch from research to conservation and why?
My first day in the field in November 1976 turned out to be a poacher day – on our way to Group 4 we came across poacher footprints and Tim White, an American traveller who had been volunteering as Dian’s assistant and who I was replacing, explained that the policy was always to check for traps if poacher signs were seen near the gorillas. We tracked the poachers and eventually raided their camp – they fled but we confiscated spears, traps and a butchered bushbuck. Quite a dramatic start for a novice, but a portent of things to come. And while anti-poacher work was only an occasional interruption to gorilla research for the first 14 months I was there, the death of Digit on the last day of 1977 changed all that. Digit was a splendid young silverback on the fringes of Group 4 who would often choose to come and sit beside me as I took notes on the group’s activity. I would say a friendship grew between us over 14 months, so finding his decapitated, mutilated body while following and destroying a trap-line was a life-changing shock. And telling Dian about it was almost worse because she had watched Digit grow up from infancy. His death was a turning point in the history of mountain gorillas because after sitting up all night discussing what to do next, Dian wrote to everyone she could think of asking for their help and the world responded. That is why there are still mountain gorillas today and why they are the only ape (apart from humans) whose number are increasing now.
Which conservation organisations do you work with now?
I will work with anyone who shares my goal to make the world a safe place for apes and elephants (and by extension all the other species that are a part of tropical forests and savannah-woodland ecosystems). I chair the Ape Alliance – a coalition of nearly 100 organisations working for ape conservation and welfare, which helped to set up the UN Great Apes Survival Partnership with UNEP and UNESCO. GRASP is the only UN body dedicated to the survival of a group of species. The Digit Fund which Dian created in 1978 grew into the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International based in the USA and the Gorilla Organization based in the UK (for which I serve as Chairman of the Trustees). I am a trustee of the Orangutan Foundation (UK), The Thin Green Line (UK) and the International Primate Protection League. I work as a consultant to the Born Free Foundation and various media companies – including developing new ways of engaging people in conservation using virtual reality and bringing documentaries to the public that the mainstream media won’t show via ECOSTREAMZ.
What do these organisations do to help?
Each plays a different role – UN-GRASP helps governments to develop and implement policies to ensure great apes survive – almost all the 23 countries with natural great ape populations have now adopted specific plans to protect them in their natural habitat. The NGOs help implement these plans which form part of a global strategy first hammered out under the Kinshasa Declaration in 2005. Donor governments help finance the plans which in part come into the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement, but there is never enough to achieve all that is needed, so generous members of the public everywhere in the world donate to charities that rescue ape orphans from the illegal wildlife trade, train rangers to protect their habitat, run education programmes, develop alternative livelihoods for ex-poachers and forest dependent communities who might previously have destroyed ape habitat for a living.
Do you still manage to visit the gorillas?
Yes. I am a self-confessed gorillaholic, and usually manage a visit or two every year by guiding special interest tours or film crews if there isn’t a conservation project that takes me to gorilla habitat. I delight in sharing the experience of meeting gorillas, and have had the pleasure of introducing hundreds of people over the years ranging from Sir David Attenborough and Johnny Rotten to volunteers and family safaris! I now see the grown-up children and grandchildren of the gorillas I first got to know in the 70s.
And finally, tell us about the time you took David Attenborough to see the gorillas!
The BBC series ‘Life on Earth’ helped change how the world thinks about gorillas, but at the time none of us knew we were making television history. David wanted to talk about the importance of the opposable thumb in primate evolution, but he ended up being sat upon by a playful juvenile called Pablo, and had young gorillas using their opposable thumbs to untie his shoelaces. Some of the most memorable moments were not captured on film (this was before the days of hard drives that can store and instantly replay hours of video – every roll of film was a precious asset). It was a wonderful few days, and coming so soon after the killing of Digit, it lifted our spirits. More importantly, Sir David has been supporting gorilla conservation ever since and has therefore played an important part in turning their fortunes around – as he is now doing for the whole planet by speaking out on climate change and the need to reduce our destructive impact on the natural world.