Biologist and conservationist Ian Redmond has helped safeguard the future of mountain gorillas in Africa – and even taught Sigourney Weaver how to grunt like an ape. Chris Bond talked to him.
IF the rest of the world was half as committed to conserving and understanding nature as Ian Redmond, then no animals would ever have to worry about going the way of the dodo.
Neither would we need to worry about global warming.
For more than 30 years, the softly-spoken biologist turned conservationist has dedicated his life to observing and protecting some of the planet's most endangered species.
His research has taken him to remote corners of the world, where he has discovered new species of frogs, re-introduced orphaned polar bears to the wild, established crucial conservation organisations including the Ape Alliance and carried out the first study of cave-dwelling elephants in Kenya.
It was also Redmond who, while working for the great ape expert Dian Fossey, introduced Sir David Attenborough to the mountain gorillas of Rwanda for his famous Life on Earth programme.
Now the 52-year-old has been awarded an OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List for his services to conservation, an accolade that no one can say is undeserved.
"Who'd have thought they'd give a gong to a bloke who still prefers to wear shorts and hang out with gorillas?" he jokes.
"Seriously, though, the very idea that the Establishment considers conservation an activity deserving of such an award is encouraging in itself."
Redmond says his fascination with the natural world goes back to his childhood.
"I was a nature boy right from the beginning," he says. "My mother tells me I would drop down into the drains when we lived in Malaysia and she would find my nappy lying around and pull me out.
"So it seemed I liked being in the muck and the creepy crawlies and I never grew out of it."
Born in Malaysia, he went to live with his mother in Beverley when he was five, after his parents separated, and he attended the local grammar school.
"I was fascinated by living things and as a child I would bring them home, it was the usual stuff, caterpillars, lizards, stick insects and I loved praying mantises," says Redmond, who soon became a member of the Beverley and Hull Naturalist Society.
"Then when I was 11 years old I read Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals and related to it immediately, and cursed the
fact that I didn't live on a Greek island.
"But Yorkshire was a great place to grow up in, and I used to go to the Beverley cattle market, and then I had a job as a veterinary assistant."
In the early 1970s he went to Keele University, where he studied biology and geology, and it was there he contacted Dr Dian Fossey.
"I organised the speakers for the biology society and one of them was a student who had been studying gorillas.
"He had worked with Dian Fossey and gave me her address, and I wrote her a letter saying although I wasn't a well-known academic, I was very keen and would happily come and do anything, mend the roof or make tea."
He didn't hear anything for months and it was only during a training exercise with the TA that he received a reply.
"When I returned one morning, having spent the night in a foxhole, there was a brightly coloured letter on the bed from Dian in which she said if I could get to Rwanda then she would try me out."
In November 1976, he finally arrived at the Karisoke Research Centre, a remote rainforest camp Dr Fossey had set up in the mountains of Rwanda.
He stayed there for 18 months studying the great apes as Dr Fossey's assistant.
"I was accepted almost as one of the family. They were curious and then they would ignore you, but after a while some of the individuals decided to seek out your company.
"When it was their rest time, they would come and rest next to you rather than another gorilla. But I was no more in danger of being attacked by them then I would be sitting next to a 15 stone wrestler in a pub.
"It was like being a guest at a family picnic.
"Before Dian's work, humans and apes had always seen each other as enemies, when I first saw them, they would scream and start fighting each other, but Dian changed all that."
As with any relationship as intense as theirs, life wasn't always a bed of roses.
"Dian was an extraordinary person and her reputation for having a fierce temper was well deserved and I was often on the wrong end of it," he says.
"But we were very close friends, because we realised our number one concern was the survival of the gorillas. What rarely gets mentioned is her wicked sense of humour. She could be a lot of fun to be around."
Together, their work helped raise awareness of the gorillas whose numbers had steadily declined due to the destruction of their natural habitat and being hunted by poachers.
Their main focus was research, but this shifted to conservation work in 1978 following the murder of Digit – a young silverback who they had both grown close to.
When Redmond found his corpse minus its head and hands, they began raising money for anti-poacher patrols to combat the lucrative business of selling the gorillas' body parts to tourists who wanted the ultimate souvenir.
Digit's death came just days before Sir David Attenborough and his BBC crew were due to begin filming.
Although the circumstances were fraught, the subsequent footage brought the plight of the great apes to a huge audience.
"It was pure chance, but the David Attenborough programme was very timely."
Not only did it galvanise organisations like the World Wildlife Fund, it also coincided with a growing eco-tourism industry.
With westerners prepared to pay $375 (203) for an hour just watching the primates from a distance, the Rwandan authorities were quick to promote this new moneyspinner.
Although the tours divided opinion among some conservationists, the funds it provided helped protect the mountain gorillas.
Redmond left Dr Fossey to work on projects in New Guinea, where he discovered new species of nematode worms, amphibians and two new species of frog.
He returned to Africa in the 1980s, this time to conduct research into the cave-elephants of Kenya's Mount Elgon.
Over a period of months Redmond and his team gained the trust of the elephants, in particular one individual who he nicknamed Charles, because of his ears. But tragedy struck once again.
"It was 10 years after Digit's death and we found one of the elephants, I'm pretty sure it was Charles, and his face had been sliced off with what seemed to be a chain saw.
"So for the second time an individual animal I had become close to had been killed because someone, somewhere in the world, wanted a bit of his body."
In the wake of this, Redmond set up the African Ele-Fund which along with pressure from the Born Free Foundation and Care For the Wild, helped lead to a ban on ivory trading in 1989.
Around this time he became involved in the film Gorillas in the Mist, starring Sigourney Weaver as Dian Fossey.
Redmond's friend and mentor had been found murdered in the bedroom of her cabin in December 1985.
"Things were still pretty raw, Dian had just been murdered but I talked to the producers and agreed to spend some time with Sigourney Weaver so she could better understand Dian's character.
"I had the distinction of teaching Sigourney Weaver how to grunt, and she grunts very well I have to say."
Working on the film had a profound effect on Weaver, who is now patron of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.
Redmond continues to work tirelessly to protect these animals and helped launch Grasp (the Great Apes Survival Project) which works with the UN to halt the alarming decline in ape numbers worldwide.
"The mountain gorilla populations have increased slightly from 10 or 15 years ago and that's great news and they are as safe as they can be.
"But almost all the other gorillas, chimps and orang-utans in Africa are declining in numbers and, in some cases, they are declining at a catastrophic rate. So we have to repeat the success we had with the mountain gorillas," he says. "I am a biologist by training and a conservationist by necessity. But conservation for me isn't just about saving species.
"On a larger scale, the planet needs us to save functioning eco-systems, and on a smaller scale, we must also recognise that species are made up of individual animals.
"But we are now seeing investment banks in the UK being told by their customers
not to invest in destructive industries, so we are having an effect and I am optimistic – we can do it."