Into the Wild: Researcher Devotes Life to Study of Endangered Gorillas

Photo: Into the Wild: Studying Gorillas in their Natural Habitat
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Angelique Todd is something of a modern-day Dian Fossey, the scientist from "Gorillas in the Mist." A researcher with the World Wildlife Fund, Todd has devoted her life to observing gorillas in the wild.

For the past nine years, Todd and her team of pygmies in the Central African Republic have followed one family of gorillas with the goal of "habituating" them -- getting them used to having humans around.

No one has ever gotten so close to a group of western lowland gorillas. It was a dangerous, difficult job.

Person of the Week: Angelique Todd
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"Every day being screamed at. Or being charged and just having to take it and then just moving on," Todd said. "It can be really scary. They can kill you basically."

The silverback or male of the group is a roughly 400-pound, six-foot gorilla Todd named Mikumba. After three years of daily acts of violence, he finally stopped charging and let Todd in.

"I worked with captive gorillas for a long time, but I would never imagine that I'd be walking around and that we'd have successfully habituated a group of gorillas just to the point that they have no problem with us," she said.

Todd and the pygmies communicate with the gorillas with cooing and clucking noises. The sounds let the gorillas know humans are there, and that they are harmless. As a result, they are able to observe the family of animals in their natural habitat as they peacefully make their way through the jungle.

"Silverbacks do a lot of stopping and listening so the females go out ahead -- and he stays behind, just listening," she said.

After nine years of following the family, Todd feels an extraordinary bond with the gorillas.

"Because I've spent so many years, I've seen all the kids grow up and now start to leave," she said. "You make huge sacrifices in your life to be in the forest with the gorillas. Once you go down that direction it's tough to turn back and you just hope that someone will turn up -- Who knows what will happen.

"Well, certainly while Mikumba's around, I'll still be here," she added.

Working to Save the Endangered Species

The peaceful daily routine of the gorillas obscures the fact that they are severely endangered. They are prey for elephants and for humans. Local people kill gorillas for food.

"If they get the chance, yes they will eat the gorillas. And apparently, it's very tasty meat but I couldn't possibly try it," Todd said. "For people's attitudes here, they're just animals. They don't see that they're sentient beings. They're just meat."

Todd's program employs 60 locals who help her study the gorillas and bring in tourists. Local people who spend more time with the animals are able to see how human-like they are and are much less likely to kill them.

However, habituation is not without controversy. Exposing the gorillas to humans can make the animals too trusting and more vulnerable to poachers. Bringing in tourists can also expose the animals to human diseases.

It's a risk Todd is willing to take. She has dedicated her life to the study of a species that many fear will no longer be with us in 50 years.

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