Articles, Blog

The gardeners of the forest | Ian Redmond | TEDxSouthamptonUniversity

November 5, 2019

Translator: H Maria Castro
Reviewer: Miloš Milosavljević I’m very happy to be talking
about flourishing in the 21st century. It’s a very optimistic outlook and I think it’s a good lesson
for conservation thinking. So often in conservation people are talking about survival
of endangered species. We don’t just want them to survive, we want them to flourish. And by the time I finished, I hope you will agree that bringing them along with us on this journey to the 21st century is not an option, it’s a necessity. I had a good fortune to work with some of the most spectacular
and charismatic species. This is Titus.
Titus the mountain gorilla, who lives in the Virunga volcanoes, or lived in the Virunga volcanoes. Sadly, he died a couple of years ago, but he died of natural causes, having been one of the most successful
silver-backs ever known. You can learn about him
by looking up a documentary about his life called
‘Titus, the Gorilla King.’ Having a story about an individual is a very powerful way of getting across important information. My story began in 1976,
in this context, because in 1976,
as a newly-qualified biologist, I had a ridiculously good fortune to go and work with
the late Dr. Dian Fossey, visiting each day families of mountain gorillas, watching them and learning from them. My ability to do that was because Dian had already been there
for 10 years. The gorillas had learned to trust her. She developed methods
of winning their trust so that you’re accepted almost as a member of the family and you can sit and observe the behaviour, study what they do, study how they interact
with their environment, and how they sometimes
would interact with you. Here you see Poppy, at that time 18 months old or so, approaching Dian. Poppy’s mum and dad
were sitting yards away and they didn’t mind
because they knew Dian and they trusted her. That mutual trust is an extraordinary way to study an endangered species. The other photograph shows the other side
of Dian Fossey’s work, what made her very controversial. She felt that — to quote her — she couldn’t close her eyes or her mind to what was going on around her. And that was poaching. So we would go out each day
to find the gorillas, and sometimes we would find snares. And those snares are not set for gorillas, but set for antelope. The snares, although set for antelope, could catch gorillas. Here you see a wire one, sometimes they are made of string. But if you get that around your hand, and you’re frightened and you pull, it creates a tourniquet
and you may lose the hand or you may die. The poachers would also use weapons. In those days it was usually spears. So we would find these people in the forest, it’s a national park, they had no right to be there, we had no right to be intervening in a law-enforcement capacity, but we did. We confiscated spears and did our best to protect these amazing animals and destroy the tools and equipment of the poachers. So that was life at Karisoke
in the late ’70s. Karisoke is a research centre
that Dian Fossey founded. And the work continues through the Dian Fossey
Gorilla Fund International, based in the USA. And each day scientists still go out
to study the gorillas, but they no longer live in the forest, because of the changing
security situation there. But this is Titus’ group. Titus became this powerful patriarch, living a long life
for a silver-back gorilla, it turns out that 35 years is about
what a silver-back might live. He spent his days feeding in the forest, looking after his family. Watching gorillas feeding, you see that they prepare each food item differently. Usually scientists look
at the gorilla feeding, I want you to think for a moment, what happens to the plants after the gorilla has finished feeding? The gorilla plucks the end of plant stems and you know, if you’re a gardener, that if you prune the end, it increases lateral growth
of the side shoots, so it bushes out. A young gorilla is learning
in their mother’s lap how to do this, how to select
and prepare different food plants. So this goes on, generation after generation, and gorillas have an impact
on their forests and that’s what I wanted to focus on. They’re part of the forest. People think there’s a forest
and then you put some animals in. No. The animals and the trees and the bacteria are all part
of that forest ecosystem. One of the things
that gorillas do spectacularly well is produce manure. This is gorilla dung. You have to understand
the importance of dung. A gorilla will eat and produce something like between 10 and 20 kilos
of dung every day. That’s about a 100 kilos a week. In 10 weeks, that’s a ton of manure being spread around the forest. And in that manure are seeds. You see there two species, a tree and a blackberry. Gorillas like blackberries, but they don’t always wait
for the blackberries to ripen. Why do we want to conserve them? In my case, because I got to know
some of them as friends and they would choose
to come and sit with me. It was a case of: if someone attacked my friends, of course I want to defend them. That’s a very personal reason and why I’m still involved
in conservation. But it’s not a very good reason for wanting to protect a whole species. What about the gorillas I don’t know? Do they don’t matter? Of course they do. Dian’s reaction to this poaching was to organise anti-poaching patrols and here’s one of them, going through the alpine mole on top of Karisimbi. And these men put their lives on the line to protect a forest, which is important to them and to the surrounding community, because around that forest is the most densely populated
part of rural Africa, and all those fields depend on the water that comes out of the forest. When Dian was murdered, many people thought
that would be an end to it. But she had inspired so many people, sometimes in a positive,
sometimes in a negative way, but she made people do stuff and now the mountain gorillas are the focus of a successful tourism enterprise in both Rwanda and Uganda, and, when it’s stable enough,
in the DRC. People pay hundreds of dollars to go and sit for an hour and experience the life of gorillas
from that close proximity, no longer sitting right next to them, to protect their health, we’re trying to maintain
a 7-metre distance, so that your germs don’t infect them. But this is wonderful. And the gorilla families that are visited, whether by researchers or tourists, have more babies,
that have a better survival chance than un-habituated families. So it’s a conservation success story. It’s good for the economy of the region,
it creates jobs and the gorillas are increasing in number
in this area. But mountain gorillas
are the only kind of great ape whose numbers are known
to be increasing. Orangutans,
Western lowland gorillas, Eastern lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, all declining. So how can we use the lessons from the mountain gorilla conservation for these other apes,
when they don’t live in national parks? Many of them live
outside of national parks. So we can’t necessarily
use the same methods. And the people who share the forest
with the apes? This lady is married
to a bush meat hunter. Her well-being and the future of her child depend on his ability to kill animals. So we somehow
have to give them a better way of life if we’re going to stop them
from killing endangered species. Get them on the side. I employed them to take me out to find the gorillas without killing them. I wanted to go into elephants, because elephants are even more important as gardeners of the forest. If gorillas are gardeners
of the forest, elephants are the mega-gardeners,
because they’re so big. And the elephants that I studied
go underground. This is just extraordinary. Elephants underground. They go into deep caves to mine the rock. And they mine the rock
because it’s rich in minerals and here you see
a young tusker I called Charles, digging away in a little side chamber,
in total darkness, the flash illuminated it, and he was tolerant enough
to let me take this photograph. Just as with the gorillas. Some of the gorillas
we knew as individuals, and even as friends, were killed by poachers, because at that time in the late ’70s, their skulls and their hands
were being bought by tourists as gruesome souvenirs. So with elephants, Charles was killed by elephant poachers. For many people,
when they look at an elephant, they think that the value
of that elephant is this. This is a carving, and when people see
a carved piece of ivory they’re often so entranced
by the skill of the craftsman they forget that it was once
an elephant’s front teeth. This particular elephant
would have been a young bull, not old enough to breed, because this part
is in the face of the elephant, only that bit protrudes, and he was killed before he had a chance
to pass on his genes to the next generation. So what I want to focus on now is not the value of ivory but the value of elephants alive and living in the forest. This is the true value of elephants. Its dung. And that photograph shows you elephant dung in the forest bursting with seedlings. For an elephant, they eat about 4 percent of their body weight each day, which means that it’s something like up to 200 kilos of vegetation, which means roughly
200 kilos of droppings. Multiply that. That’s a ton of manure every week. So elephants have a huge impact and yet in the last two lifetimes, so early, middle 19th century when firearms came into Africa, that’s when elephant numbers
started to plummet. It is thought that then
there were probably about 10 million elephants in Africa. Now there are fewer than half million. So we’ve lost 95 percent
of the work force of the forest that recycles nutrients, disperses seeds and creates the forests of tomorrow. And yet these animals
are huge and powerful, we are so taken aback
by how powerful they are we think they’re indestructible. This is the silver-back who lives
in Kahusi-Biega National Park, his father, his uncle,
were killed for bush meat. And they were killed for bush meat because during the war
the rangers couldn’t help. The NGO’s like
The Born Free Foundation, The Gorilla Organisation, that helped to fund
the conservation activities, couldn’t cope because of the insecurity and also because everyone of us, in the developed world, has some kind of mobile electronic device
in our pocket and our mobile phones and laptops
need tantalum, and one of the places on Earth
where you can find tantalum is underground
in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and these kids are chiselling, trying to earn money, and in the illegal mines, that are controlled by rebels, they feed the workers on bush meat. If you loose the gorillas from the forest, you don’t just loose the gorillas. We’re so taken by their similarity to us, the fact that they share
a lot of DNA with us, if you read the conservation literature that’s why we have to protect them,
because they share DNA with us, or because we want our children
to be able to go and see them when they’re growing up,
and of course that would be nice. But the real reason we need to think
about protecting not just the few habituated gorillas
but all gorillas and all elephants, wherever they live,
is because every day they are dispersing seeds and sowing the next generation of trees. Right now, we are suddenly realising that tropical forests
are not just ornamental. So, for the health of the planet, and this is the UN scheme
for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation and helping biodiversity and developments into the bargain, can the dollars we attach now to carbon
help to fund conservation? But it’s not just carbon. This is an animated weather map of rainfall around the world. The white is water vapour, the orangey bits are storms and it’s speeded up, you can see the clock
in the top right-hand corner that’s wheezing round, about one day a second. Every day rains in the Congo basin, so that big pulsing
in the middle of Africa is the daily rainfall. It doesn’t just rain
in the rainforest, though. Those weather systems move West
across the Atlantic and meet the Amazon pump, which is pulsing away and sending weather
off up to North America and swiftly across the Atlantic
to Britain, and Europe. We’re all benefiting
from the ecosystem services provided by these forests in the tropics and the animals that play a keystone role in those forests need our protection because we want to continue to have this global
water distribution system acting as a sort of a biotic pump. The children in Africa, who live next door to these forests
or in those forests, have very little concept of this. So how can we educate them? One method, the Ape Alliance, which is a coalition of NGOs that I have the privilege to chair, one of our members
is the Great Ape Film Initiative and with the Gorilla Organisation
in Uganda, we’re taking pedal-powered cinemas. This is a room full of children, about a thousand kids, who have never seen
movie images before. And they are cycling to generate power to see the film, so the kids themselves generate the power and they’re learning about
the importance of apes and ecosystems, and the importance
of forest in their lives. All around the world, we want to get this message across. So it’s now possible
to visit the gorillas virtually by going to and experiencing
that amazing experience of hearing the sounds of the forest, seeing the gorillas, their behaviour, their interaction with the forest and realising, I hope, that the forest will not be the same
if we lose them. So we’re protecting gorillas, elephants, we’re trying to protect orangutans,
but we’re losing, because when we raise money for NGOs, for organisations to support the efforts
of government agencies that are trying to protect these forests, we’re thinking in terms of tens
or hundreds of thousands, bigger NGOs maybe low millions. At the same time corporations, mining corporations, agricultural corporations, are spending billions of dollars
to develop those same lands. And the Ministers
that come to our UN meetings and sign agreements to protect apes are often trumped
by the more powerful Ministries of Agriculture and Development, who want the mines to develop, or want the roads
to be put through the forest, even though opening up the forest begins a degradation
that results in extinction. So my message to the world is: bringing along
the gorillas and the elephants in our journey to the 21st century
isn’t an option. It isn’t optional, they are not ornaments, they’re not things
to go and see on holiday. Even if you don’t see them on holiday, every gorilla, every elephant, every howler monkey in Latin America
or taper are working for us, dispersing seeds for the trees of tomorrow and if we want those carbon stores and those rainwater-generating forests to continue into the next century we have to make sure that the seeds are being sown today to do that job. That’s the message. If you value the forest, protect the gardeners of the forest. Thank you. (Applause)


  • Reply Luke Berman May 25, 2014 at 8:15 am

    A fantastic talk by a true inspiration of mine, we have to start understanding that everything is connected and if we remove key species like elephants or gorillas then there will be huge consequences. To protect the forests we must protect the gardeners.

  • Reply Simon Jennings May 25, 2014 at 10:39 am

    this is an impressive talk, but i think it is wrong to portray the developers of mining and other mega projects that involve land conversion as being wholly on the negative side of the conservation equation. As he rightly says the problem with conservation as practised by conservation ngos and donors is that it does not provide enough money to compensate for the failure of many species to provide useful economic benefits to a degree significant enough to a) make people think twice about eating them until there are none left, or b) to change their livelihood strategies so that there is less deleterious impact on natural habitats.  By contrast careful thinking about "no nett loss biodiversity offsetting" etc in the planning and execution of mining projects can generate streams of secured funding and commitments on a scale that conservationists only dream about,  and secure habitats over medium to long term timescales. The mining majors, being sensitive to their profound impacts on land and local society, are actually at the forefront of this kind of thinking, in which they are aided by conservation scientists and by ngos like ffi. They view this as an important part of corporate social responsibility. An ideal mining project might run for fifty years and bring substantial economic, employment, development, and conservation benefits when viewed in the round.

  • Reply Ken Jones May 25, 2014 at 7:02 pm

    While Ian's message is common sense to many of us, it is absolutely needed to be delivered to the American public. I think that indeed, many, many members of the general public think of these animals as ornamentation – curiosities that are not important to their future. But as Ian points out, we need these gardeners to maintain the forests that are so important as a foundation to the hydrological cycle, for carbon storage – climate stabilization and the health of the Web of LIfe. "If you value the forests, protect the gardeners". I will share this TED talk with our A-Team For Wildlife kids.

  • Reply Pose Manikin July 28, 2014 at 7:30 pm

    fantastic talk! 🙂

  • Reply Isiac Torres August 21, 2014 at 7:51 am

    Why do they need to pedal to power the videos? It would actually save a lot of food/water and materials to make any other type of generator, Wind, Water, banana power.

  • Reply David Beaune September 28, 2014 at 1:25 am

    On the ecosystem scene, all actors have to play a role
    here I show how elephant extinction affect tree populations:

  • Reply David Beaune September 28, 2014 at 1:28 am

    Same with bonobos,

    and other frugivorous animals:

  • Reply Adrian Moten November 19, 2014 at 11:16 pm

    Queue complexity of a global interconnected food web and nutrient cycling and u start watching where u tread

  • Reply Jon Kov February 21, 2015 at 8:40 am

    You fuckin' have elephant ivory in your kit.  Your argument is invalid.  You have the "tooth" of the dead animal in your hand.  weirdo.  So if i buy it, it's different. 

  • Reply Jon Kov February 21, 2015 at 8:43 am

    fuck you sir.  Eat that elephant shit for all i care.  You are an enabler

  • Reply Jos Leggett March 24, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    More inspiration from the legendary Mr Redmond, after myself, just returning to the UK from 6 months in the west tropics, habituating the largest known group of forest chimps (Pan troglodyte verus) in order to understand and protect better. It's hard not to just look at our close ancestors in awe and instead properly understand the behavioral ecology between organisms and there distribution and the interactions that determine them. Such a small percentage reach full longevity due to poaching, spread of disease or other human influences jeopardizing the "Cultural Transmission" passed from mother to infant/juvenile and in turn affects gardening! 
    I was also blessed on the 19th Nov to have a rare up close and personal encounter with one large male forest elephant that gave me quite a display! Now, I'm hooked for life in regulating, protecting, learning and understanding. 
    Continue Ian in educating and inspiring like you did me whilst meeting you at Bristol Zoo Gardens Symposium. I cant wait until my health and strength allows me back for another stretch with, I can't call them my friends. But they now tolerate me and if I am ever looked at by them as part of their community then I'm certainly at the very bottom of the hierarchy. Hah! 

    Jos Leggett   

  • Reply Taylor Gilligan November 9, 2015 at 9:29 pm

    Love this man, and all he does for the wildlife/environment.

  • Leave a Reply