Sharp-eyed followers of the YoG Blog will have noticed that there are a few gaps in the record of my State of the Gorilla Safari across Africa… My apologies for keeping you in suspense but I promise they will be filled a.s.a.p. In the meantime, after a week packed with UK activities – a succesful YoG lecture at Bristol Zoo, writing some articles and email interviews, thanking all who sponsored my Great Gorilla Run knuckle-walk, a Born Free Conservation Team meeting and some extreme lawn-mowing (our garden is on a steep hill!) – I got up at 3:00am on Friday to get to Heathrow for a 6.35 Lufthansa flight to SF via Frankfurt (an odd route I know, but Lufthansa kindly donated the flights that made the YoG US lecture tour possible).
San Francisco is on the coast, with only a couple of sand dunes to break the wind that sweeps in from the Pacific. Looking West, there’s nothing but waves all the way to Japan! The SF zoo staff made me feel very welcome and showed me round the gorilla facility, where they had recently successfully hand-reared a baby – Hasani, rejected by his inexperienced mother – for his first few months, then adopted him out to an un-related female with better mothering skills than his own mother, who now seems quite happy with the arrangement and occasionally plays with him. Sitting by the prison-like steel cages of their indoor quarters, I admitted how hard I find it seeing gorillas (and other animals) in captivity. We discussed whether wild gorillas ever rejected their young — it has never been observed, but not only do wild infants benefit from their own mother’s undivided attention for the first four years or so of their childhood, they then get to watch their mother and other females with their babies and to practice their parenting skills by borrowing babies once they are old enough to venture out of their mother’s protective embrace.
It was amazing to see how Hasani’s adopted mother cared for him, and kept him clear of the silverback’s displays – he was stressed by my presence so we adjourned to the public viewing area outside, but he knew we were there and strutted across the grass and rocks blowing raspberries, which was his habit when tense I gathered. The question of the ethics of keeping such intelligent animals in captivity will be debated passionately for many years to come, but the one thing that both sides of this debate recognise is that we don’t have the luxury of that many years to halt the decline in most wild gorilla populations.
This is why the YoG focuses on conservation of gorillas in their natural habitat, and why more than 100 zoos around the world are through WAZA holding YoG events to raise funds for priority projects. These projects all aid in the implementation of an Action Plan under the CMS Gorilla Agreement, a new legally binding treaty between the governments of countries with natural gorilla populations.
The SF Zoo event was a lecture and about 50 gorilla enthusiasts ignored the glorious Autumn sunshine to gather in the education centre to hear about the SoG Safari and how trees that grew from seeds dispersed in gorilla poo (the kids always love this bit!) pump water into the atmosphere and create weather systems that travel round the globe and water the crops here in California .
Across town at exactly the same time, YoG Patron Jane Goodall was telling two packed halls (one video-linked to the other) of the importance of chimpanzees as well as gorillas and environmental stewardship in general, at the annual Wildlife Conservation Network. I caught up with her later that afternoon, perched on a stool in the sunshine with a long queue of fans clutching copies of her new book and graciously chatting to each in turn while a photographer recorded each encounter, providing an inspirational momento that will likely become a family heirloom for every recipient. Jane asked about last Saturday’s Great Gorilla Run and I thanked her for sponsoring me and showed her my healing knuckle-blisters (she hadn’t realised I did most of the 7km on all fours).
We compared schedules (I am always awed by Jane’s energy in the face of an itinerary that would exhaust someone half her age) and found that our paths are next likely to cross at the UN Climate Convention in Copenhagen, where we will both be speaking up for the Gardeners of the Forest and hoping that the next climate treaty that will follow the Kyoto Protocol (which runs out in 2012) will include the carbon in tropical forests.
The WCN also brought many other leading conservationists to SF, including Iain Douglas-Hamilton, fighting to Save the Elephants, Claudio Sillero, fighting to save the Ethiopian wolf, John Hare, fighting to save the Bactrian camel, Isobel Lackman fighting for the orangutans of Borneo, and Gladys Kalema, flying the YoG flag and seeking support for Conservation through Public Health. Mingling with this stellar display of heroes of the planet were hundreds of generous donors ranging from those contributing by buying crafts made by communities in conservation hotspots to major donors – all brought together by a determination to engage with the problem rather than hope that someone else will do something.
This was my first experience of WCN but I was beginning to see why so many consider it one of the most inspiring and important events in the conservation calendar.
Today I was surprised to find I had a few hours to myself, so enjoyed a walk along the dark sands of SF beach paddling in the bracing Pacific surf (in the English sense of wading up to your knees, not in the canoe sense) and watching an assortment of avian waders racing the waves and probing for food with their long beaks. A friend then took me to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the free festival in Golden Gate Park, where the Chieftons had the crowd dancing to Celtic rhythmns, Earl Scruggs the father of Bluegrass celebrated his 85th birthday on stage in a stomping set, and Marianne Faithful sang to an adoring crowd as the sun sank behind the trees.
Tens of thousands of people politely crammed into the park – we really are the most gregarious primate on the planet – and a great time was had by all. I wished that some of these musical icons had known about YoG and told the crowd about it, but maybe next year we can persuade the organisers to incorporate the theme of wildlife for the 2010 UN Year of Biodiversity – afterall, bluegrass stems from communities living close to nature, and what better way to celebrate Nature than a free folk festival in the park? Watch this space…