For our debut newsletter, we are delighted that we have had the opportunity to interview Ian Redmond. Ian, the renowned biologist and conservationist, has had a fascinating career spanning over 35 years. Where do you begin with the man who introduced David Attenborough to Mountain Gorillas, was mentored by Dian Fossey and acted as a UN Ambassador in the year of the Gorilla?
As a modest man he sees these events as lucky experiences, on an almost pre-determined path. “I was born a naturalist, I’m a biologist by training and a conservationist by necessity. My mum encouraged my love of nature and was very tolerant of my curiosity. Especially when she started to see stick insects crawling up the curtains or when I filled the house with frogs and tadpoles,” he remembers with some amusement. “As with many naturalists I wanted to bring nature inside but learned later that it was better to look at nature where it belonged and to have less of an impact.”
Ian fostered this interest by joining Beverley Naturalist and then through a more formalised route, attending Keele University to study Biology and Geology. However, “It was my extra-curricular activities” says Ian “that determined my path. As I arranged talks for the biology society, I got to write to people whose work I found interesting, and they would come and talk, and I was able to pick their brains. One of my visiting lecturers was Ethel Lingren who set up the reindeer project in the Cairngorms as a result of that I spent a summer there, herding reindeer.”
It was another ‘lucky’ encounter during this time that led Ian to one of the most significant experiences of his career. “Sandy Harcourt who had been studying gorillas at Dian Fossey’s research centre gave me Dian’s address and actually said don’t mention my name as they had fallen out. Sandy said it was in the ‘middle of nowhere, so if you are good at mending things mention that, as it’s so remote if things get broken they stay broken.’
“I wrote to Dian and said ‘my academic tutors don’t rate me very highly but if you want someone to make the tea or mend the roof I will be happy to come and help.’ I think that’s what caught her attention. It was months later that she wrote back and said ‘if you can get here we’ll try you out’.”
Talking about his memories of the woman herself, Ian says, “Dian Fossey became a friend and mento She guided me in many ways and as did the African trackers, who I depended on.
“She was a difficult boss to say the least, having a rich vocabulary and short fuse. If she saw red you knew about it. She was a hard taskmaster, but worked tirelessly.”
The film Gorillas in the Mist is a difficult watch for most people, so how does he feel about watching it now? “I find it hard t as it’s semi biographical. That was an important part of my life, although it was a dramatization so not everything that happened in the movie happened in real life, and vice versa.
“There were many important things which I thought should have gone in that didn’t. What didn’t come across was Dian’s sense of fun and wicked sense of humour, he recalls with affection. “She also had a ferocious temper.”
“It is designed for family viewing, but the film also has some upsetting themes. It introduced the idea of studying gorillas in a forest, showing that observing a species in its habitat on its own terms as a profession, was more beneficial than taking it back to captivity to study.” In true modest style, Ian also assures me that it was “pure luck that I introduced David Attenborough to gorillas,” but he is happy that a “great friendship grew out of this introduction.”
Ian’s career has been shaped by two separate and tragic incidents; the deaths of the silverback gorilla Digit and Charles the Underground Elephant He says, “I am a reluctant conservationist, first with gorillas and again ten years later with elephants.
Firstly there was Digit the silverback gorilla killed by poachers, because a trader in the nearby town offered $20 for his head and hands, because he knew he could sell it for more.” Ian says with sadness “So that was a milestone but then 10 years later when I was studying underground elephants, [at this point he excitedly says ‘remarkable, underground elephants, look it up] I didn’t get as far as getting their trust but I did start to name them. However, in the 1980s the price of ivory, went up, meaning even stumpy Elgan elephants were worth killing for, as Japan and China were eager for ivory. There was still a legal trade which masked a massive illegal trade, so in 1987 the elephants that I studied were hit by ivory poachers. I stood by the carcass of a young male who I believed was Charles, a name I gave him because he as he let me take a photo of him in the cave but then turned around and stuck his ears out at me, so I backed off and he carried on tusking. I had to stand next to his body with his face sliced off, which suggested a chain saw.
“It’s in a national park where guns are allowed, but if poachers spray shots into a herd of elephants you don’t have time to get the ivory out, so they would cut off the face, slice it into two and carry it away. That led me to do what Dian Fossey did after Digit, who set up the Digit fund. Charles wasn’t as well known, so I did an article for BBC wildlife and set up the African Elephant Fund.”
Ian is philosophical when attributing blame for these incidences. “These were individual animals that I had come to know and who had come to know and trust me, killed by poachers. That immediately sends the message that poachers are the enemy, I try very hard not to demonise poachers, I have met poachers and they are not devils. Quite often they are poor people who don’t see many options to feed their kids. The real devils are the rich guys who organise it or those who set up the demand, from people who think a carved elephant tusk would look good on their mantelpiece. Or those who set up the economic levers that have a domino effect that results in saying to a guy, possibly barefoot, ‘I will give you a small amount of money to get a gorilla hand, elephant tusk or bear bile’. Who would have thought that bear bile would be so sought after for medicinal value? This can only be countered by knowledge.”
It’s no surprise that Ian shares Ethical Bucket List’s opinion on tourism in relation to animals. “How do we get people to value animals? By ecological tourism. Ethical tourism creates an economic incentive for governments to protect animals.
“As a naturalist I tried to bring nature into my bedroom. David Attenborough’s first quest was to get animals for London Zoo, but attitudes have changed around me. My attitude changed through my work with reindeers, gorillas and elephants. We could learn more looking at them in the wild, I see them as living cogs in the biological machine that we need to keep our planet habitable.”
Ian adds, “Covid 19 has put an end to a lot of tourism. Virtual Reality tourism can help to fill a gap if people around the world paid a small amount to watch.” But he advises “If we do travel we should mitigate against our impact in the sense of carbon emissions.” Ian also agrees with Ethical Bucket List on the value of raising awareness. He says“Sitting on elephant and petting a tiger is wrong, and once you present the facts most people agree. The purpose of a selfie is self esteem, once you post a photo with an animal that all your friends know has suffered for this they won’t be approving and will be critical of you. This is self-regulating once the knowledge is out there. This is why this initiative is so important – that we are getting the message out there, rather than just sitting in a room talking to people who agree with us.” But Ian warns “Ethical Bucket List is really import but must apply it to your everyday decisions. Everyone will eventually need to do this; it is enlightened self-interest. As our decisions will have an impact on us and our children and grandchildren.”
So what are Ian’s biggest fears for the future? “Population and consumption. If everyone used less there would be enough to go around but everyone wants more gizmos and gadgets. There is not enough enlightened self-interest, my biggest fear is that the penny doesn’t drop.
“The lightbulb has to switch on in a critical mass of minds. That’s why the internet is such a good opportunity to raise awareness of our actions. I think we have seen through the pandemic how it will be if we leave it to nature to regulate. And nature will, of course it will. We are not saving the planet, it will survive, but it’s whether there will be human beings living on it.
“Education and the empowerment of women gives us the ability to do something,and a better legislative framework. As a species we’re spectacularly bad at self-regulation, but it will happen – we will make it happen. You can’t unlearn something, you can’t hide from it.”
Ian believes that a new way of viewing the value of nature is the way forward, and this, he believes, is currently evolving through a very unlikely partner. “We need a new sustainable way of living, giving the planet a way to restore itself. The 21st century needs to be about restoration, for example by introducing a carbon budget. We can calculate the productivity of the planet and divide it by the number of people, to assess an individual’s carbon budget. So, if you cannot use yours you can trade your budget and it becomes a tradable commodity.
Ralph Chalmi of the International Monetary Fund, is an economist who has done two studies, relating to whales and elephants. Ifeach elephantcan generate $1.8 carbon value through their lives, if they live their entire life, this acts as an incentive to preserve their life rather than kill them. Animals are worth more alive than dead. If a hunter kills a 40-year-old elephant, that is 20 years short of its lifespan, and the value of the 20 years in carbon value outweighs the fee for selling to the hunter.”
So finally, we asked him, after all your studies and observations of nature, what is your favourite animal? Ian replies, “I use to say my wife but now I have my kids and my grandchild too. We are all animals!!” Well, we can’t argue with that.