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Mountain Gorillas are of course the obvious highlight of the visit. Mountain gorillas number about 700 individuals. There is still much debate whether they should form a distinct species or subspecies (I favor species status). They were made famous through the research of Dian Fossey (Gorillas in the Mist) who studied them from her base at Karisoke.
Male Mountain Gorilla (Silverback)
I was obviously invited on this trip because I am a travel writer and journalist, but I also have a very unusual commonality with the subject matter. I am actually a former primatologist. I once worked with 80 chimpanzees as a caregiver at the Primate Foundation of Arizona. I later worked as a researcher at the Language Reseach Center of Georgia State University with a group of very famous bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees), including Kanzi and Panbanisha. The two have been featured by National Geographic and nearly every major newspaper on the planet. The center also had a rather sadly neglected Orangutan that I did my best to care for.
I had an opportunity to work with Koko the gorilla as well (she was made famous by sign-language research with Dr. Penny Patterson, highlighted by National Geographic). However, I withdrew my application after my interview because of financial concerns related to the low pay for the position. It was the right decision I think, but I still felt bad, and would have liked to have had the experience of working with all four of the great apes (not counting the distinct species within orangutans and gorillas). And after all, it was Dian Fossey with her field research among mountain gorillas that really got me interested in primatology as a career anyway.
After nearly ten years of following another career path, I thought that the great apes were out of my life and locked in the closet. It seems I have yet another chapter…
And how does this tie into my life in Vietnam and Southeast Asia? Well, here in Vietnam—and even in my own Binh Thuan Province—we have many primates: Yellow-cheeked Gibbons, Slow Loris, various macaques, leaf monkeys and Langurs. Hopefully this trip will give me some ideas and inspiration to go out and both locate & document these species in my area and find ways to protect them.
Secondly, the subject of Rwanda’s recent history (have to avoid mentioning a certain keyword here so Vietnam doesn’t block my blog again) has a very direct commonality with Cambodia. I think it will be interesting to compare and contrast the development since their respective tragedies.
So stay tuned here and follow me on www.twitter.com/fisheggtree. I’ll be posting regular updates from the short trip. Also, note to editors: I’m available for stories on Rwanda and its wildlife.