With populations threatened with extinction, David Hewitt meets two Yorkshiremen at the forefront of the fight to save the great apes.
It was, Ian Redmond recalls, quite the coincidence. Speaking at a conference in Indonesia, the UN great apes ambassador found himself joined in the bar afterwards by fellow conservationist Dr Ian Singleton.
Aside from having the same first name and sharing a passion for primates, the pair discovered that they had much more in common, having both spent their formative years in and around Beverley, East Yorkshire.
Indeed, now both leading figures in the fight to save great apes from extinction, the conservationists credit the moors, estuaries and coastline of their native county with setting them off on their chosen career paths.
“I always argue that naturalists are born, never made,” says Redmond, fresh from a six-week long trip to central Africa where he was lending his expertise to what will be the first ever 3D movie featuring all of the great apes. But still, even born naturalists need an opportunity to put their passion into practice and, for Redmond, the Yorkshire countryside – not to mention a patient mother – gave him just this.
“I was lucky in that there were, and still are, so many green spaces within walking distance of Beverley town centre.
“I remember seeing my first badgers at Kiplin Hall, bringing home injured rooks that I had rescued from the fields and chasing escaped stick insects around our house.”
This boyhood enthusiasm for the flora and fauna that surrounded him led Redmond to enlist with the Hull University Nature Corps, where he joined students several years his senior carrying out bird counts on the Humber. Then it was off to Keele University to study zoology.
It was there that one of the naturalists he invited to give a guest lecture suggested he get in touch with Dr Dian Fossey, the pioneering primatologist who would later be made famous by the film Gorillas in the Mist.
“I wrote to Dian, offering to be more of a handyman than research assistant,” says Redmond. “Much to my surprise, she wrote back and in next to no time, I found myself working alongside her for a whole 18 months in Rwanda.”
Since then, despite describing himself as an “equal opportunities conservationist”, his life’s work – for which he was awarded an OBE in 2006 – has centred on protecting Africa’s great apes, and above all, the mountain gorilla.
Similarly, Singleton looks back with fondness at a childhood spent largely enjoying the great outdoors.
“Ever since I was two or three I would go fishing with my dad around Hedon or on the Humber Estuary. I’d spend the days watching birds or looking for snakes and so before long, Spurn Head and the rest of the coastline around Hull became my usual stomping ground,” he says.
It was during his teens that Singleton realised he could make a career of his hobby. Influenced by the writings of the legendary naturalist Gerald Durrell, Singleton followed up a degree from the-then Sunderland Polytechnic with spells at first Whipsnade and then Edinburgh Zoo.
However, it wasn’t until he landed the job of orang-utan keeper at Durrell’s own Jersey Zoo that he became determined to devote his career to saving the “old man of the forest”.
“I think every zookeeper secretly wants to work with the great apes,” he explains. “And once you start spending all day of every day with an animal, your fascination for them just grows and grows. So, from 1989 right through to 1996 I was working in Jersey and then taking busman’s holidays over to Indonesia to see orang-utans in the wild.”
It was on one such trip that he met an academic who offered to take him on as a PhD student, allowing him to leave the island of Jersey for the island of Sumatra. The rest, as they say, is history.
Just as the pasts of the two Yorkshiremen are strikingly similar, so too are the challenges facing them in the present. Both gorillas and orang-utans are officially listed as critically endangered and have been on the brink of extinction for several decades now.
In the case of the Sumatran orang-utan, there are fewer than 8,000 left in the world, while the remaining population of the Bornean orang-utan is similarly fragile, numbering just 55,000. Working on the very front line in the fight against extinction, Dr Singleton now heads up the Sumatran Orang-utan Conservation Programme (SOCP).
“Our work is incredibly varied,” he explains. “We work with local communities to tackle problems such as poaching, we confiscate and rehabilitate apes that have been taken from the forests as illegal pets and we also fight against unsustainable palm oil – the leading threat to orang-utans right now since new plantations are destroying their habitat.”
Thousands of miles away, Redmond also works to highlight the devastating impact habitat loss is having on mountain gorillas.
Though numbers have climbed steadily over recent years – up from just 450 when he first started working with Dr Fossey – with fewer than 800 individuals in the whole world, gorillas remain on the very brink of extinction.
To raise awareness of their plight, the Keele graduate travels the globe in his capacity as chairman of the Ape Alliance and chief consultant to the UN Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP), addressing conferences and fronting around 50 documentaries to date, not including the upcoming 3D blockbuster which he hopes will do for “our cousins in the forest” what March of the Penguins did for the emperor penguins of Antarctica.
Thanks to the family ties they still have with the north of England, as well as their ongoing love for Yorkshire countryside, both Ians return to Yorkshire as and when their work allows.
“I tend to go back to Yorkshire once every two years,” says Singleton, who has two young children with his Indonesian wife. “I think it’s important for my kids to see where they come from. So, I’ve shown them where I grew up and they’ve also got their own Hull City shirts that they wear while exploring the Indonesian jungle.”
With a mother still in Beverley and a sister in Wakefield, Redmond also attempts to squeeze an occasional trip back to Yorkshire between more regular trips to DR Congo, Uganda and Rwanda.
“For me, the Dales, Flamborough Head, and the cliffs at Bempton are still great places to spot wildlife and to enjoy the outstanding natural beauty Yorkshire has in spades,” he says.
Such natural beauty, both agree, is more than enough to inspire the next generation of great Yorkshire conservationists. But even if it’s not enough to inspire you to leave the Dales and the Moors for the Virunga Massif or the Indonesian rainforest, says Redmond, you can still do your bit for the great apes.
“It can, of course, feel like what happens to gorillas doesn’t affect people in Yorkshire and vice versa, but the natural world is all so inter-connected,” he explains. “Gorillas and orang-utans, as with elephants, are what you might call the gardeners of the forests. That is, the health of the forests really depends on them being there.
“If we lose them, we’ll lose the forests and this will come back and bite us in the shape of climate change.”
The most effective way of helping the great apes from afar is to be an ethical consumer.
“Look out for RSPO-certified palm oil,” says Singleton. “Currently, the demand for sustainable palm oil is not sufficiently strong for the big retailers to take notice. But if we can use people power to encourage the big producers and supermarkets to switch to ape-friendly palm oil, then that will make a massive difference.”
For more details of the work of the two Yorkshiremen fighting to save the great apes visit www.sumatranorangutan.org or www.4apes.com
The decline of the great apes
Sumatran Orang-utan: Numbers: Approx 7,500; Conservation Status: Critically-endangered
Bornean Orang-utan: Numbers: Approx 55,000; Conservation Status: Endangered
Mountain Gorilla:Numbers: Less than 800; Conservation Status: Critically-endangered
Cross River Gorilla: Numbers: Approx 300; Conservation Status: Critically-endangered