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DQ Blog

December 6, 2016.  BOHART RANCH, BRIDGER MTS.

      I wish I had a photo of tonight's waxing crescent moon.  Go out and look at it.  That's the warm reflected winter luminescence that guided me out of the modest backcountry of the Bridger Mountains tonight.

     After half a day's work on "Tree of Life" and some chores, I headed for Bohart Ranch, up Bridger canyon, for a respite of late-afternoon ski touring.  Got there about 3:30 pm, way too late, it was 7 degrees or so, but as I signed in John at the Bohart lodge said, "It's a winter wondrland out there!"  That's the spirit.  I had my headlamp, knowing that I was pushing the window of daylight.  Started out, got half a mile, fingers were freezing in my little gloves, came back for my serious mittens.  Out again.  No one on the trails--except one guy, who blew past me because he was skating and I was doing diagonal stride.  (I don't skate ski because 1) I'm old and lazy and 2) when I ski tour, I want to meditate, not hyperventilate.)  Skied out alone for about an hour, on lovely snow, as it got dark.  Didn't quite go up to Logger's Loops this time, atop the Bohart area, because I knew that takes me a bit longer. Looped back around after an hour and headed toward the lodge, somewhere amid these branching trails. Now it got dusky.  Headlamp still in the fanny pack.  Should I pull it out?  Naw.  I knew that we were graced with a waxing crescent moon tonight, and that therefore it would be up early, long before sunset, casting a fair bit of light onto the snow.  So I slid on, through the darkening, with good visibility on the two-track trail.  Exquisite.  Silence.  Lodgepole pines and subalpine firs.  The ridge of the Bridgers in the distance.  Nobody else on the trails.  I got back to the car after two hours, sweaty.  I knew that John, living over the Bohart garage, would come out and look for me sometime before midnight if

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from National Geographic online

Scary new viruses emerge abruptly in our modern world, provoking stark headlines and demands for bold government action—but in most cases the causes are complex and have developed, unnoticed, over years or decades. That’s true again for Zika, a virus unknown to most people until recent days, and now suddenly the subject of somber warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, which announced on Thursday that the virus is “spreading explosively.” The alarm stems from an epidemic of birth defects in Brazil, which may be linked with Zika virus infection of mothers during pregnancy. Amid this furor, it’s worth distinguishing fact from supposition and placing the Zika phenomenon in a broader context.

20487 lores400This is a transmission electron micrograph (TEM) of Zika virus, which is a member of the family Flaviviridae. Virus particles are 40 nm in diameter, with an outer envelope, and an inner dense core. The arrow identifies a single virus particle. Photo by Cynthia Goldsmith.This virus was first isolated in Uganda in 1947, within a small enclave called Zika Forest, near the west shore of Lake Victoria, where researchers from the Rockefeller Foundation were studying yellow fever. Ironically, the earliest known victim of Zika virus infection in Africa was an Asian macaque—a rhesus monkey, set out in a cage in a treetop as bait for the mosquitoes that carry yellow fever virus. Instead of that virus, its blood yielded this new thing, dubbed Zika. The virus had never been seen before, but it had probably lurked chronically in African monkeys, or some other native reservoir, for millennia. The same virus later turned up, in the same forest, within mosquitoes of the Aedes genus, and those mosquitoes are now identified as vectors of Zika, transmitting the virus from host to host when they bite.

Eventually it was found infecting people, too, not just in Africa but also in Asia—from Senegal to Cambodia, in fact, a wide range throughout which Aedes mosquitoes reside. The symptoms, such as headache, fever, a rash, bloodshot eyes, were generally mild.

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Termas del Flaco is a tiny hot springs resort at the end of a long gravel road leading eastward into the Chilean Andes, eighty kilometers southeast of a town called San Fernando.  The road is one-lane and dicey, as it follows the tumbling Tinguiririca River upstream, and remains closed at a police checkpoint until 4 pm each day, at which time outgoing traffic IMG 3586halts and incoming traffic may proceed.  Toward the head of the valley rises Tinguiririca Volcano, a shapely cone.  Around the hot springs are clustered a few simple clapboard hotels and rental cabañas for tourists and Chilean family getaways, a sleek compound for workers on the nearby hydroelectric project, and a derelict seven-story sanatorium that was built in the 1930s, for treating TB patients with salubrious mountain air, but abandoned after the discovery of penicillin, which worked better.  I’ve come here with two evolutionary biologists, John McCutcheon of the University of Montana and Claudio Veloso of the University of Chile.  They are armed and dangerous.

They are armed with butterfly nets, that is, and dangerous to a certain group of insects.  McCutcheon is a tall, lanky fellow who shaves his head bald and wears a blue cap in the antipodes sun.  Veloso is a compact man, slight as a jockey, with a gray stubble beard and a warm, sly smile.  Their mission in the Andes is to collect cicadas—those buzzing motorboats of the sky—for DNA sequencing, in order to explore a subject that’s much, much larger than the genetics of cicadas.  The bugs in question (yes, it’s okay to call cicadas “bugs,” because they’re classified within the order Hemiptera, true bugs) belong to several species within the genus Tettigades, endemic to South America.  Cicadas of that genus, McCutcheon and his lab people have discovered, contain prodigious anomalies of symbiosis: creatures within creatures, with reduced but complementary genomes interacting elaborately.  McCutcheon and one of his postdoc researchers, Piotr Lukasik, with Veloso’s help, and on a grant from the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration, have set themselves to exploring this mystery of boxes within boxes.

Piotr Lukasik

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One year ago at this time, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was just emerging from a lull, a falsely reassuring hiatus, like the “phony war” that settled over Europe in 1939, after Hitler’s invasion of Poland.  During early April, 2014, there was optimism among health officials that control measures were working--in Guinea, where it had all IMG 3061begun, and in the two other affected countries, Liberia and Sierra Leone; there was guarded confidence that those efforts would soon bring the outbreak to an end.  Some of the expert responders from overseas went home, to the CDC in Atlanta and elsewhere.  Then in late May came a disconcerting surge.  The incidence of new cases rose abruptly.  Traditional funeral practices and other factors allowed the virus to spread; response efforts, facilities, and supplies turned out to be insufficient.  Sick people were traveling—across borders among the three countries, and from the countryside to towns.  By mid-June, the disease had reached Liberia’s capital, Monrovia.  You know what happened next: Instead of an end, there was a geometrical getaway, an explosion of cases, as the outbreak became an epidemic.

As of yesterday, the official count from the World Health Organization is this: 27,237 cases and 11,158 deaths.

Furthermore, the epidemic still hasn’t ended—though it has fallen below the attention threshold for most news media outside of Africa.  Liberia is presently free of Ebola cases, but Guinea and Sierra Leone are not.  In fact, during two consecutive weeks now there have been slight increases in the new case counts for Guinea and Sierra Leone.  That unnerving little trend, plus the continuing occurrence of puzzling new cases for which the source (who infected whom?) can’t be identified, “highlights the challenges” (in the careful language of the WHO) of bringing this whole gruesome chain of events to a close.

Another unnerving fact is that there’s still so much about Ebola virus disease that we don’t understand.  At the top of that list of unknowns is the identity of the reservoir host—the creature in which the virus abides, quietly, inconspicuously, when it’s not causing devastation among humans.

IMG 3006Thirty-nine years

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As the epidemic of Ebola continues to ravage three West Africa countries, and to frighten people around the world, many scientific  questions about this disease and the ghastly microbe that causes it remain unanswered.  One of those is: What’s the reservoir host of Ebola virus, the creature in which it lives secretively over the long term?  Fabian Leendertz works on that question, and in December he published a preliminary study describing a new hypothesis.  Because I’m at work on a feature story about the reservoir question and Leendertz’s work, National Geographic asked me to write a brief post for its online news about the newly released study.

You can read that post here.

The full story, with text by me and photographs by Pete Muller, will appear in the July 2015 issue of National Geographic.

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IMG 3066The 2014 epidemic of Ebola virus disease in West Africa is unlike any Ebola event ever seen before. In fact, as of this writing, it’s already ten times larger in terms of case fatalities—ten times more punishing to Africans, ten times more scary and befuddling to people around the world—than any single outbreak of an ebolavirus (there are five kinds) during the previous known history of the disease. The peculiarly unfortunate circumstances that allowed this outbreak to simmer for months and then explode in the three countries first affected, and especially in Liberia, include weakened governance after decades of civil turmoil, inadequate health-care infrastructure, shortage of trained health-care workers and simple barrier-nursing supplies, population density and poverty in the capital cities, suspicion of Western medicine, and traditional funerary practices. Those factors, and the progress of the epidemic, have been charted in some of the best of the news coverage, including this story by Canadian reporter Helen Branswell, and this one from a team at The Washington Post.

I value such news reporting as much as anyone, but my own role as a writer is different; I cover science and science history at greater length and slower speed. Still, as the epidemic became more severe in late August, my British publisher asked me to move quickly, for a change, and draw together the sections concerning Ebola virus from my 2012 book Spillover and, by editing and rearranging them into a stand-alone structure, to create a small book that could be published promptly. I’ve done that, adding a new Introduction, and a new Epilogue about the events of 2014. The result is Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus, published by Random House in the United Kingdom in early October and by W.W. Norton in the United States on October 20. This is a book for people who are too busy, in an urgent and nervous time, or otherwise disinclined by lack of interest in the broader topic, to read Spillover. Its purpose is to give readers, including hurried news people and public officials as well as

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A mule, wrote William Faulkner, in one of his later novels, is an animal that “will labor ten years willingly and patiently for you, for the privilege of kicking you once.” But if the mule happens to love you as much as Rosie the Campfire Mule loves Wes Livingston, a Wyoming backcountry guide and horseman, a man of legendary skills and tart opinions, chances are that the decade of work will pass and the kick will remain undelivered.


photo 2I got to know Wes and Rosie, and to witness their unusual relationship, last month in the Teton Wilderness of northwestern Wyoming, not far from the southeast boundary of Yellowstone National Park. This is hard country, wrinkled with mountains and big buttes of crumbly gray volcanic breccia, high passes between the verdant drainages where beavers dam streams and grizzly bears kill the occasional calf moose, grassy plateaus at 11,000 feet upon which elk graze in summer amid the wildflowers. Not far away is a headwaters trickle that becomes the upper, upper Yellowstone River. Forgive me being a little vague about place names here, but suffice to say it’s a remote area, farther from an improved road than anywhere else in the lower 48 states. I was visiting on business: shadowing an elk researcher named Arthur Middleton, during an eight-day pack trip, on behalf of National Geographic. Middleton’s research partner, Joe Riis, who happens also to be a Nat Geo photographer, was along too. Wes Livingston guided and supported us, with help from a string of pack mules to complement our riding horses. One of those mules, a middle-aged reddish-brown female with dents of seniority above her eyebrows, was Rosie. I recognized her to be a special animal, with special status, the first night she walked into our campfire circle and stood over the flames, singeing her belly fur, in order to be part of our conversation and closer to Wes.


Rosie carried full panniers during the day, like any pack animal, but once unsaddled she became part of the people group. While the horses and other mules stood picketed or hobbled

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(This post was written for the National Geographic website and can be found here.  At the same site, you can also read other posts from the 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition to Franz Josef Land.)

Five weeks is a long time to spend on a boat, even if it happens to be a vessel as comfortable as the Polaris, amid company as fascinating, various, congenial, and purposeful as the members of the 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition to Franz Josef Land.  Don’t remind me, please, that Charles Darwin was out for four years, nine months, and five days with the Beagle voyage, and that he slept on a hammock in a shared cabin so tiny he had to pull out a bureau drawer each night to make room for his feet.  Don’t tell me about the intrepid survivors of the whaling ship Essex, or the Bounty mutineers making their way to Tahiti, or that guy who soloed around the world in the Gypsy Moth.  Don’t tell me about Shackleton and the Endurance because, inspirational as it may be, that’s a South Pole story, half a world away from us up here in the far North.  Just trust me: Thirty-five days gets to be a longish time, bobbing around on the Arctic Ocean, especially after the wireless internet goes down, the freshwater rationing begins, and the vodka runs out.

The survey ship Polaris on the 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition to Franz Josef Land.

So we have devised some ways of coping.  We drink a lot of coffee and tea.  We share an endless supply of stories from previous adventures.  We edit photographs, by the hour, on our computers and phones.  We pose head-breaking riddles to the group, like that one about walking south a mile, east a mile, then north a mile and ending up exactly where you started.  (It works from the North Pole, yes, but where else?)  We take picnic lunches ashore, in the form of salami and cheese and brown bread, of which there seems to be no shortage, and eat them cheerily amid the rocks and the ice during pauses from the day’s walking and work.  When unable to go ashore,

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In February of this year I turned 65.  Ugh.  It seems catastrophically old.  Five years earlier, I had invented a cheerful motto to assuage the sting of turning 60, which seemed bad enough: “Sixty: Too young to quit skiing, too old to go bald.”  I couldn’t use that again, so I considered several other consolations: 1) Turning 65 in 2013, already so soon, is better than never turning 65 at all; and 2) now I qualified for Medicare, meaning that the egregiously high premiums I was paying to a certain insurance company, as a self-employed person, not part of a group, who occasionally rides small airplanes in Africa and engages in other mildly risky behavior, would disappear from my monthly nut.  I drank a grateful toast to Lyndon Johnson—something that wouldn’t have occurred to me during the Vietnam war—for that blessing.

And I took one other measure of birthday observance, rather more reckless.  Half-seriously, I muttered aloud to my dear wife: This year, I want to climb the Grand Teton.  I’ve lived in the shadow of that mountain for forty years, and it’s time that I get a look at the view from the top.

David Quammen atop Grand Teton with (left to right) Paul Bertelli, David, Conrad Anker and Betsy Quammen.Betsy took me seriously.  Before I knew it, she had made one call and my birthday present was arranged.  Her call was to our good friend Conrad Anker (one of the world’s preeminent mountaineers—in case you don’t happen to follow climbing—as well as an extraordinarily fine and unpretentious man).  Conrad said: Sure, sounds like fun, he’d be glad to accompany me, and Betsy too, to the top of the Grand.  He put it into his calendar for mid-July.  Which meant that I, with my big mouth, had to put it into my calendar too.

This wouldn’t be guiding.  This would be a larkish outing among friends, one of whom happened to be vastly competent within the context and the others, um, not quite so much.

Betsy Quammen on Grand Teton.Another good friend, Paul Bertelli, signed on for this enterprise.  A strong young climber named Bud Martin, whom Paul and Conrad both knew and trusted, became our fifth.  I put

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Roughly 1.5 million wildebeest inhabit the Serengeti.

The wildebeest genome is an extremely efficient recipe for turning grass into meat.  Wildebeest may not be the smartest animals on four hooves but you've got to give them that.  And the greater Serengeti ecosystem is where this grass-to-meat transformation manifests in its most spectacular abundance.  Roughly 1.5 million wildebeest inhabit the Serengeti, migrating seasonally, following the rains and the new greenery and other enticements, circling around from their calving grounds on the eastern plains, across the Mara River and up into Kenya, back down into Tanzania and eastward again, like a vast whirlpool of flesh.  Predators follow the wildebeest.  Scavengers following the predators.  Calves, with desperate attention, follow their mothers.  Males follow females.  All this makes Serengeti National Park one of the best of all earthly places to contemplate the poignant interconnectedness of sex and birth and life and death.

That's why I was there: on assignment for National Geographic to research a story about mortality and lions.  Late one recent afternoon, I stepped out of a Land Rover near the crest of a broad, gentle rise.  The vehicle's driver, my traveling companion, was Daniel Rosengren, a tough and savvy young Swede employed as a field assistant by the Serengeti Lion Project, a long-term study run by Dr. Craig Packer.   I wanted to make a cell-phone call, and Daniel had brought me up to one of the high spots where I might find coverage for my Tanzanian SIM card.  We were surrounded by grass in all directions, a few distant acacias and kopjes, and a mere several thousand wildebeest.  The animals continued eating as I phoned home.

Pride of lions in the Serengeti.

Standing 30 feet away from your vehicle is not recommended in the Serengeti (matter of fact, it may be prohibited by park rules) because of the lions.  But the pride we'd been radio-tracking seemed to be somewhere else.  And with so much alternative prey all around, I figured the odds of my getting predated were pretty low.  My call went through, but it was mid-morning of a Friday back in Montana, and my wife seemed to be away from her phone.  I

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I flew into Bangalore, at the invitation of my old friend Ravi Chellam, to participate in the Student Conference on Conservation Science, held there during the first week of August.  It had been ten years or so--I don't recall exactly, but too long--since my last trip to India.  Great to see Ravi and his wife Bhooma, and to meet so many bright, intellectually hungry, poised and confident young conservation biologists. They were enough to give you hope for the future--which is something I don't say lightly.  During the four days of the conference I heard some very smart and useful talks, including one by Umesh Srinivasan, on understory bird populations in logged habitat, which eventually received a prize for best of the conference.  But I wasn't just there to listen; they put me to work, doing one plenary lecture (on zoonotic diseases, derived from my Spillover research) and two workshops (on science writing for the general public).  The event culminated, on Saturday evening, with a plenary talk by Bittu Sahgal, another old friend of both mine and Ravi's.  Bittu was empassioned and inspirational, as ever.  In closing, he told the next generation of conservation biologists: "I wish you curiosity.  And I wish you courage." 

Immediately following the SCCS meeting, also in Bangalore, was another: The bi-annual meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology,  Asia branch.  Again, hundreds of bright young (and some senior) biologists, not just from India but from all over the region, including Indonesia, Mauritius, and China. Those sessions, plus a good meeting with the tiger biologist Ullas Karanth, plus a quick trip over to Chennai, where I did two more lectures and toured the Madras Crocodile Bank, went far toward filling out this two-week India visit.  They worked me hard (I think it was four lectures, four workshops, and a panel in nine days) and treated me well (plenty of fine Indian food, and I scarcely was allowed to pull out my wallet).  I stayed in a guest-house apartment at the National Center for Biological Sciences, an impressive institution full of researchers and grad students, where my

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Greg Dwyer is a mathematical ecologist, Greg Dwyer is a mathematical ecologist.based at the University of Chicago, who studies outbreak populations of forest insects.  His work involves trying to understand the extreme boom-and-bust cycles of species such as the gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar), which explodes occasionally into huge infestations, defoliates trees throughout a region, and then suddenly crashes.  After a period of years at low population, another gypsy moth outbreak begins, the numbers increase suddenly and grotesquely, the infestation peaks for a year or two—and then comes another crash.  The main factor driving the crash phase of the cycle is viral infection, killing gypsy moths like a medieval plague.  That's why I recently went to see Dwyer at his office on the UC campus.  I thought his research and his ideas might help inform the final chapter of my book in progress, which concerns the ecology and evolution of scary viruses—the ones that kill humans, not gypsy moths.  The book will appear next year, under the title Spillover. 

Greg Dwyer is a mathematical ecologist.Dwyer is a rare combination: a highly sophisticated math guy who creates mathematical models of ecological processes, and a field man who still goes into the forest, collecting his own data.  He also runs a lab, in which he and his grad students and postdocs can watch the moth-virus interaction in its excruciating stages.  The virus in question is called nucleopolyhedrovirus (NPV).  There's a whole group of NPVs, some infecting such other forest insects as the Douglas-fir tussock moth and the Western tent caterpillar.   This one is specifically adapted to kill gypsy moths.  It consumes them from within, it dissolves them, it virtually melts them down—the way Ebola virus supposedly (but not in reality, only in the pop literature of Ebola hype) melts a human body.  For a gypsy moth, it's no hype.  "They pick up the virus," Dwyer told me, "they go splat on a leaf."

Then he showed me.  In the basement of the biology building, he unlocked a door to what he called "the dirty room" of his lab complex and invited me in.  From an incubator, one of his postdocs

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Horse named Chinook.  He's a black-and-white Paint, a gelding, owned by Rusty Black of Pendleton, Oregon.I've been living what feels like a Dream Vacation this summer: attending some of America's foremost rodeos.  In August it was the Omak Stampede in central Washington.  A week later I was at Crow Fair, in the town of Crow Agency, Montana.  Now I'm here, along with 15,000 exuberant rodeo fans, for the Pendleton Round-Up.   All the motels have been booked for months (I was lucky to get a room through the kindness of the Round-Up media folks), and downtown Pendleton looks like a cross between Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Beale Street in Memphis, and a Resistol Hats sales conference in, um, northeastern Oregon.  During the day, people actually go watch the rodeo.  That finishes in late afternoon, to leave time for partying.  Everybody is friendly.  The odd things about this particular Dream Vacation are that 1) it's not my dream (it must be somebody else's, misdirected to me through some neuro-ethereal mix-up), and 2) it's not a vacation.  I'm on assignment for National Geographic, researching a story on the role of the horse in Native American cultures.

The reason for attending those particular three rodeos has not been to see the bull riding and calf roping and barrel racing, etc., or to raise my cholesterol level on a diet of curly fries and pulled pork.  The reason is that Omak, Crow Fair, and Pendleton all feature certain equestrian events that are uniquely embraced by Native American riders today.  In Omak, it's the Suicide Race (or, as its organizers prefer to bill it, the World Famous Suicide Race), details of which I'll leave to your imagination, at least for now.  At Crow Fair, and also here at Pendleton, it's the Indian Relay, a wonderfully frantic race that involves three fast circuits of the track, dead stops, leaping dismounts and re-mounts, and nothing so superfluous as a saddle.  Again, more on that later, maybe, in the magazine piece.  My purpose here is merely to share with you the image of one magnificent horse I was fortunate enough to meet during these travels.

His name is Chinook.  He's a black-and-white Paint,

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David Quammen and Christian Ziegler on the outskirts of Kinshasa.Lots of field time in the Congo for me this year.  The forests are wonderful; the people are likable; the cities, the logistics, and the politics are . . . ugh, challenging.  As you probably know, there are two countries known loosely as "the Congo":  the Republic of the Congo, north of the big river, with its capital at Brazzaville; and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), south of the river, with its capital at Kinshasa.  In past years, during the Megatransect and later outings, my Congo travel has always been north of the river.  This year I've spent seven weeks south of the river, getting a taste of DRC.  My main purpose has been to research a story on the bonobo, Pan paniscus, a species of primate sometimes (misleadingly) called the pygmy chimpanzee.  That's a work in progress for National Geographic. I've spent time in the forest with several bonobo researchers, including Gottfried Hohmann (who has studied them for decades) and Tetsuya Sakamaki, following wild but habituated groups.  In such situations, we've kept a respectable distance (ten yards, at least) from the animals and, when relatively close, worn surgical masks to lessen the chance of infecting them with some human bug.

If you've ever worn a surgical mask while trying to run through an equatorial rainforest, get air to your lungs, and keep your glasses from fogging up, you'll appreciate how much Gottfried and Tetsuya and their colleagues care about these creatures. 

I also spent a day at the Lola yaDavid Quammen and Christian Ziegler on the outskirts of Kinshasa. Bonobo refuge on the outskirts of Kinshasa.  It's an orphanage and halfway house for bonobos that have been captured, or grown up in captivity, and been rescued by an extraordinary woman named Claudine Andre, who runs the place.  Some of those animals are now being released to the wild—under carefully restricted conditions, into habitat empty of other bonobos.  The Lola bonobos are quite familiar with human contact.  My photographer colleague for this assignment, Christian Ziegler (that's him in the olive fatigues), had spent a week at the refuge before going to the wild and so,

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EBOLA: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus

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SPILLOVER: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic

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THE CHIMP AND THE RIVER: How AIDS Emerged from an African Forest