As the world’s nations hash out a plan for curbing the extinction crisis at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) this week, we asked some of CI’s top scientists to reflect on their careers and what biodiversity means to them. Here’s what Dr. Ben Rawson—a primatologist and manager of the Veun Sai Forests Scape for CI’s Greater Mekong program—had to say.
Have you ever had the realization that you are doing nothing with your life? I did, one day on the way to my job at a bookstore storeroom, and so I decided it was time to get out and about a bit more. A few months later I was off from Sydney to California to volunteer as a keeper at the Gibbon Conservation Center, where I was responsible for feeding and cleaning cages for about 30 gibbons from around the world. I spent two and a half months there, and by the end I was madly, passionately, deeply in love with gibbons. In love with their beautiful morning songs that can be heard from miles around, their graceful arm-swinging behavior (known as brachiation) and even their different personalities. I wanted more, so before I left I wrote a proposal to do my Ph.D. on gibbon ecology in Cambodia. Before I knew it I was another plane, this time bound for Cambodia, to start a career as a primatologist.
The following three years were joyous and scary and frustrating and fun. Seeing the Cambodian jungle, being threatened at gunpoint, nine bouts of malaria, hospitalized in three countries, no money, no data—it was all worth it for those beautiful gibbons. If gibbons in captivity are spectacular, then seeing them in the forest is breathtakingly magical. They are truly spirits of the forest; their mournful morning songs, the way they swing through the canopy almost noiselessly, disappearing as quickly as they appear. And actually that was the problem—they kept on disappearing! I ended up doing my Ph.D. on black-shanked douc langurs (Pygathrix nigripes), a beautiful but slow and lazy monkey species who were more disposed to letting me watch them. But gibbons were my first love.
I came to work for CI’s Greater Mekong Program in 2007 as their regional primatologist, and at the top of my hit list were gibbon conservation activities. Indochina has a very high number of gibbon species—nine in all—and all are threatened. Some of these species have been reduced to only a few hundred individuals in tiny patches of forest, surrounded by human activities in all directions. For many the future is not bright. Our surveys for one of the most endangered species, the northern white-cheeked crested gibbon (Nomascus leucogenys), have found the largest remaining populations in Vietnam number only 20-30 individuals, usually because the rest have been shot for food or captured for the pet trade or for traditional medicine. The forests are becoming quiet.
CI is working to find and protect these last remnants of gibbon populations and the forests in which they live. We train partners and community members to conduct surveys and monitoring, provide funds and technical expertise to projects in key gibbon habitats, distribute educational materials to local communities about gibbons and work to protect areas where critical populations of gibbons still remain.
Gibbons act as important seed dispersers which help to maintain healthy forests for people and other species. They are also our distant cousins, an amazing product of evolution that reminds us of the wonder of nature. For me, it is an immensely sad moment when I sit, perched on a hill in the forest at 5 a.m., waiting for the sun to come up and for the gibbon morning chorus to begin—and all I hear is silence.