JUNE 2015. BOZEMAN, MT
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 begun, 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.
Thirty-nine years have passed since the first recognized spillover of Ebola virus into people, and we still don’t know the answers to two crucial questions: 1) What is the reservoir host? and 2) Why has it been so hard, for so long, to answer question 1?
Last autumn, in the midst of the misery in West Africa and the feverish, confused worry about Ebola elsewhere, National Geographic asked me to look into this subject. I was partnered with a talented young combat photographer, Pete Muller, a man with a serious heart and an artist’s eye, who works out of Nairobi. We converged in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, to follow a team of Ebola researchers into the field. Other journalist teams have done fine and heroic work in reporting the medical, human, and public-health aspects of the crisis. This was a different sort of assignment. We were investigating the ecology of Ebola. The resulting story, in the July 2015 issue of National Geographic, can be read here.
DECEMBER 2014. BOZEMAN, MT
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.
NOVEMBER 2014. WEST AFRICA
The 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 ordinary readers, a concise but substantive understanding of Ebola virus within its scientific, historical, and geographical contexts.
Ebola comes from the African forest. I’ve been there, shadowing the footsteps of some courageous researchers; I’ve also had opportunity, over the course of six years’ work on Spillover, to study the scientific literature on Ebola and to talk with some of the world’s foremost experts. Now my editors at National Geographic have asked me to go back to the Ebola story, and back to Africa, for a report on one of the central and abiding mysteries about Ebola virus: Where does it hide between outbreaks? There must be a reservoir host, a creature within which the virus abides when it’s not killing humans. But with 38 years gone by since the first recognized outbreak of Ebola, the identity of that reservoir host is still unknown.
On November 10, 2014, I arrived in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, to converge with a German scientist named Fabian Leendertz, who with an international team of colleagues and students is studying the question of Ebola’s reservoir host. Fabian has a new hypothesis and has mounted this field expedition in Ivory Coast to gather samples from certain animals and test his idea. Ivory Coast is not directly affected with Ebola cases—not so far--but shares its western border with Liberia and Guinea, both of which are. Ivoirians are concerned enough about the proximity of Ebola, I notice, that the boys who hawk cold drinks and snacks amid traffic jams on the country’s main highway are now selling hand sanitizer as well.
My partner on this assignment is Pete Muller, a fine and seasoned young combat photographer, based in Nairobi. This time the combat he’s shooting is epidemiological, not military. Pete and I will be here in Ivory Coast with Fabian’s team for about two weeks. Then Pete will go on to southeastern Guinea, where the 2014 outbreak began, to document some of the human toll of Ebola. I’ll return to the continent in January for interviews with Ebola researchers in South Africa and Gabon. The result of our efforts will appear in National Geographic sometime next year. Stay tuned.
JULY 2014. TETON WILDERNESS, WYOMING
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.
I 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 for the night, Wes would remove Rosie’s halter and lead rope and let her wander the camp wearing only a cowbell. After a bit of grazing and rest, she would return to him as we stood drinking whiskey around the fire, or sat eating our dinner, and get as close as she could, sometimes nudging her face into his. After bedtime, as we lay in our tents, we would hear the gentle clunka-clunka-clunka of Rosie’s cowbell as she patrolled the camp, serving as watch-mule against grizzlies.
Wes hadn’t raised Rosie from a foal, though it seemed like that. He had traded for her as a young adult jenny. But once wearing his brand, she had imprinted on him as though he were her long-lost mother, or maybe her one true love. Affection is rarely so pure. It was like something out of Faulkner. (I think in particular of Ike Snopes and his beloved cow, in The Hamlet, but with the roles reversed.) Wes returned the affection, within reason, but he also demanded a modicum of mulish comportment. If she straddled the fire too closely for too long, he would reach out and touch her belly, commenting drily, “I’ve eaten steaks colder than that,” and then shoo her away. If she misbehaved, sneaking into the cook tent and helping herself to horse cubes from the bag, he would scold her and brandish her halter, signaling a threat to be tied to a tree, like a common mule. At that, she would squeal and dash guiltily away. Returning ten minutes later. She was smart and spoiled.
On some days, for our explorations of the high plateaus, Wes would leave his regular horse in camp, the big white gelding aptly named Hammer, riding Rosie instead. No doubt she treasured these occasions of more dignified, more intimate service to Wes. We saw her carry him across some of the nastiest, narrowest mountain trails that a rider might ever want to try.
I observed this extraordinary animal from a distance, mostly, except when she came (if Wes was otherwise occupied) to put her face in my food. And the other exception was when we made a dicey traverse across the face of what I labeled Hidden Creek Bluff.
This bluff was a steep face of breccia, crumbly and precarious, that stood between us and camp at the end of one day. There was no trail. There were only small footholds amid the rock, barely enough for a person let alone a mule (or maybe I should reverse that order) to clamber across, and four hundred feet of lethal exposure below. If a horse fell, it would be ripped to pieces before it stopped tumbling. A person, likewise. We’re going to ride that? I wondered. Arthur wondered too. (We had crossed it on the way out, earlier that day, but now that we could see the steepness and the possible consequences, it looked very forbidding.) Yep, said Wes. He put his heels into Rosie, she lurched out across, and we followed. Soon we had to dismount, in mid-slope, taking our weight off the animals and letting them walk, as we guided them carefully with their lead ropes.
Except me. With a bad knee, and too many decades of outdoor foolishness behind me, I couldn’t keep up with my own horse, a sure-footed buckskin named Jimbo. This noble animal, described by Wes as “out of a wild-horse mare my brother got at auction and a papered-up paint stud my mother had,” was assigned to me because he could compensate for my deficiencies as a mountain horseman. He was confident, professional, and strong. Now, on the face of the bluff, I gimped along beside him, behind him, unable to climb as fast as Jimbo. It soon became obvious that I was only impeding him, when he needed momentum on the steep rock. Let ‘im go! Wes hollered back. So I secured Jimbo’s lead, made sure it was clear of his feet, and released him. He clattered off along a high angle of his own choice, sending rocks the size of cantaloupes tumbling down at us. The other men and animals continued their traverse. And I stumbled along, falling farther behind.
I would have cost us an extra twenty minutes, if not worse, to make the crossing. Wes saw the problem and had a solution: He tied a short rope to Rosie’s tail. Naw, it won’t hurt her, he said, and the tail is better for towing than the saddle horn, because it’s closer to a mule’s center of gravity. So I grabbed hold of Rosie’s tail, leaned back, kept my feet moving . . . and she short-roped me up Hidden Creek Bluff. It felt a little like riding a rope tow up a ski hill.
Two days later, we moved toward a new camp, with Wes out ahead, and with Lou Lou and Rita and Georgia and Nellie and the other pack animals all laboring beneath their panniers, pigtailed together in a line. The heroine of this little story was among them, doing her quotidian job. As Arthur and I sat our horses, waiting to follow, he said to me: “Doesn’t it seem funny to see Rosie dressed up as a mule?”
AUGUST-SEPTEMBER 2013. FRANZ JOSEF LAND, RUSSIAN ARCTIC
(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.
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, in desperation for exercise, we resort to the “Fittnes Center,” a cabin thus labeled on the lowest deck, containing one treadmill machine and a set of barbells. We have a meeting each morning to discuss what we’re going to do and another each evening to recap what we’ve done.
After the evening confab, we take turns giving programs: Forest Rohwer on viruses, Alan Friedlander on fishes, Sergey Grebelny on benthic invertebrates, Andy Mann playing guitar, Maria Gavrilo on the history of meteorological research in Franz Josef Land, Cory Richards showing a selection of his stunning photos and making everyone laugh with his goofy self-deprecating humor. We are a floating Chautauqua.
On the nights without live programs, we watch movies and cable shows, sometimes together, more often on laptops in the privacy of our cabins. (Personal disclosure: I’m carrying Season 1 of “Justified” and also early episodes of “The Sopranos,” which I’d never seen.) But the movie-watching together, in the ship’s lounge, is more festive. One night we screen “The Life Aquatic, with Steve Zissou” and feel that its evocation of idiotic shipboard camaraderie speaks very specially to us. In place of the orange hats and blue shirts of Team Zissou, we have blue hats and orange jackets, part of complete kits of Arctic clothing supplied to us generously by Patagonia. In lieu of Steve Zissou we have Enric Sala, a dapper Spaniard with a pony tail and a deep commitment to marine conservation, as our expedition leader. Enric is a visionary young marine ecologist, founder of Pristine Seas and an Explorer in Residence of the National Geographic Society. On this voyage he plays many important leadership roles, such as deciding (in consultation with the captain and with Maria Gavrilo, scientific co-leader) on the route of the ship, drawing pictures of our position on the whiteboard, breaking the news as we run short of water, and remonstrating when the American and Spanish expedition members drink up an undue portion of the evening beer, leaving an insufficiency for the Russians. Enric bears little resemblance to Bill Murray, but by stretching our imaginations while watching “The Life Aquatic,” we can begin to see him in that role.
And of course, being serious people, we read. Reading helps the hours and days on ship to fly by. Charles Darwin, aboard the Beagle, had volume 2 of Lyell’s Principles of Geology, a revolutionary new work (in 1834) that catalyzed his early thinking about evolution. We enjoy the postmodern luxury of carrying many more options than Mr. Darwin did, thanks to our various electronic devices, and though we don’t put our reading time to such profoundly good use as he, still the flipping of electronic pages eases our journey. On my own Kindle, for instance, I’ve been reading Cullen Murphy’s excellent book on the Inquisition, God’s Jury, and Tom Hornbein’s classic account of his Everest climb in 1963, The West Ridge, and H. L. Mencken’s lively selection of his own work, A Mencken Chrestomathy, as well as David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman. As backup on the Kindle I have Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, all six volumes, as well as War and Peace and Emma for rereading, in case our ship becomes trapped in the Arctic pack ice and we’re forced to ride it out through the winter, as Fridtjof Nansen did. But I’m hoping that won’t become necessary.
Beyond our own personal libraries, electronic or otherwise, there’s a ship’s library downstairs, assembled for this voyage, mainly by Enric, with a rich selection of practical and historical works: The Norwegian North Pole Expedition 1893-1896: Scientific Results, in six volumes, edited by Nansen; New Lands within the Arctic, an account by Julius Payer, co-leader of the Austro-Hungarian expedition of 1872-1874 that discovered Franz Josef Land and named it for the Hapsburg emperor; A Thousand Days in the Arctic, by Frederick G. Jackson, another of the earlier Arctic pioneers; Polar Microbiology, a tome supplied for our diversion by Forest Rohwer; A Complete Guide to Arctic Wildlife, by Richard Sale; and quite a few other guidebooks, monographs, and expeditionary sagas in both English and Russian. I’ve had a dip into the Payer book myself and found some interesting bits about how this place appeared in 1874. It was even colder and icier then—although, notwithstanding the presumptive impacts of climate change, which we see in the form of retreating glaciers, and which we discuss and ponder continually, it’s pretty cold and icy now too.
Whether it’s still cold and icy enough to keep the entire ecosystem from turning upside down, like the iceberg that cracked suddenly a few days ago and nearly clobbered several of our divers, including Forest: That’s the question.
I wouldn’t want to give the impression that our only use of energy and wit on this journey is finding ways to kill time. On the contrary, most of our hours and days are industriously spent. Making dive after dive in the freezing water, Alan Friedlander has identified 10 species of shallow-zone Arctic fishes and begun pondering the reasons why diversity here seems to be low. Kike Ballesteros, likewise spending his days in a dry suit, with numbed fingers and reddened cheeks, has made a thorough inventory of the marine algae, something never before done. Maria and her team have censused and banded kittiwakes, guillemots, skuas, little auks, eider ducks, and glaucous gulls. Forest and his graduate student, Steve Quistad, have captured billions of viruses, from a variety of hospitable media such as beach slime and bird shit, and will learn interesting things from their DNA. Mike Fay has collected thirty-some species of flowering plants, using both classic methods (pressing specimens in newspaper) and new ones (GPS-referenced photographs). And even this list does not exhaust the science that’s being done.
The 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition will take the measure of Franz Josef Land—at this moment in time, for purposes of comparison against the past and the future—in ways and to a degree such as it has never before been measured. Cory Richards and I, for our part, will do our best to give some sense of this heroic effort to readers of National Geographic Magazine. Others are working to perform a parallel function with video and sound.
As for the leftover hours, once our shore hikes and our dives are completed, or if especially bad weather prevents us from diving, or hungry polar bears on the prowl make it inadvisable to go ashore, or as the days and the weeks seem lengthened inordinately by the fact that the sun never sets—we have our ways of coping, as I said. When all else fails, we write blogs.
JULY 2013. GRAND TETON PEAK, WYOMING
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.
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.
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 myself into training with afternoon hikes, up a small mountain near home, carrying a backpack loaded with 30 pounds of canteens. Betsy, Paul, and I also did a little technical practice, under the tutorship of Conrad and Bud, on local rock. Despite the four decades in Montana, and with so many old ski and kayak buddies who are also climbers, I had never done any technical climbing to speak of. But the Grand isn’t too technical, mostly just high and dramatically lovely and steep, with a bit of serious exposure. If Conrad reckoned we could get up it, or that at least we had a reasonable chance, then I figured we were not being foolish or presumptuous to try. He’s too smart and too sober to encourage delusional aspirations when it comes to a mountain.
We hiked into Garnet Canyon on July 15. Unhurried, we spent the next day climbing some pitches around our camp. July 17, starting at three a.m., was our summit day. I won’t march through the narrative here. This was always meant to be a private experience done for its own sake, not a magazine assignment or grist for writing of any sort. I’ll just say that we were lucky in weather, and in friendship, and in where we placed our hands and feet. I can’t resist sharing the joy expressed in these few photos. They reflect the fact that my belated 65th birthday present was one of the best things I’ve ever been given.
New virus is lethal, but flu viruses are always unpredictable, author says.
DAVID QUAMMEN for National Geographic News, April 8, 2013
DECEMBER 2012. SERENGETI NATIONAL PARK, TANZANIA
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.
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 left a message. The wildebeest are magnificent, the lions are splendid, the story is progressing, and I love you, I said. She has lived in Africa, and I knew she could add the vast panorama of savanna and sunlit acacias from memory. I climbed back into the Land Rover, and Daniel pointed us toward camp.
AUGUST 2012. BANGALORE
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 primary host was Sanjay Sane, a brainy and very congenial investigator of the neurophysiology of insect flight. Another important new contact was Anil Ananthaswamy, science journalist and author of The Edge of Physics, with whom I co-taught a workshop at NCBS. With friends like all these, I've just got to get back there more frequently.
Put it on your list. India is one of the most richly engaging, wondrous, and friendly countries in the world. It's also a crucial place: largest democracy in the world, remember, plus a repository of much biological diversity.
NOVEMBER 2011. CHICAGO
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.
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 pulled out a plastic container of gypsy moth caterpillars, which had been thriving and growing on a medium of caterpillar chow until, two weeks earlier, they were artificially infected with NPV. Splat.
During our chat in his office, I had questioned Dwyer about what I call The Analogy: Does our human population on Earth, now standing at 7 billion, resemble an outbreak population of forest insects? If so, should we expect that a pathogen as lethal and hungry as NPV will come along, sooner or later, and knock us back down to size? Dwyer is a careful scientist, rigorous but thoughtful. He considered the question. He drew graphs on a whiteboard. He paused, then considered the question again. He gave me a complicated, valuable answer, to which I'll try to do justice in the last chapter of my book.
SEPTEMBER 2011. 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, a gelding, owned by Rusty Black of Pendleton and ridden each evening, by a big Blackfeet man named Ray McDonald, in the Happy Canyon Indian Pageant and Wild West Show. Happy Canyon is a shamelessly oldfangled nightly pageant, held in a special arena beside the rodeo grounds, and it certainly must be the closest thing to Bill Cody's old traveling show that 21st century America has to offer. Chinook alone is worth the price of admission. The show begins with Ray McDonald, at about 6'3" and 240 pounds, in his war bonnet and other regalia, riding the pied Paint onstage atop a high catwalk in the Happy Canyon scenery. The show ends with Chinook and Ray featured again, in a tight spotlight, while the national anthem plays. Corny, yes, and somewhat politically oxymoronic (given the history of relations between Native Americans and the U.S. of A.)—but it works. The night I saw them, Chinook was so spirited that I thought he might leap straight down into the orchestra pit. But Ray controlled him, and together they cast quite a presence.
When I met the horse next day, in his stall, he indulged me to stroke his neck. I spoke with Ray McDonald, who said of this awesome animal: "He feeds off the crowd." On his left side, as you can see, Chinook has a black eyespot and, within it, a brown eye. That side is what shows when he makes his first entrance. On the right side, his face is white and his eye is blue with a rim of pink. So he seems a little oxymoronic himself. A classic Indian pony, though owned by a white woman. A badass when seen in left profile, a much milder creature as viewed from the right. Born to star but humble. He doesn't sign autographs.
JANUARY 2011. KINSHASA AND POINTS EAST
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 ya 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, by the time I arrived, the more forward animals there were used to him. I was the new guy. They inspected me carefully and then, generously, groomed me. Not even my faithful dermatologist, Brian, has ever looked at my skin more closely.
The pants legs are up, by the way, not to display my nice tan but because the bonobos were curious about my kneecaps.
While delayed in Kinshasa between fieldtrips, I got the chance to add a few crucial pieces to the story of HIV/AIDS for my book on zoonotic diseases.
This is Professor Jean-Marie Kabongo, head of pathology in the Department of Anatomy and Pathology at the University of Kinshasa. I called on him in order to trace an important piece of evidence back to its source. The evidence is a small block of paraffin-preserved tissue, a biopsy specimen that was sliced from a lymph node of a Kinshasa woman in 1960, and stored thereafter at the pathology lab. Almost fifty years later, a molecular biologist at the University of Arizona, Dr. Michael Worobey, screened that sample (among many others) and found it to be HIV-positive. Let me repeat: an HIV-positive woman in Kinshasa in 1960. Worobey sequenced the genome of the sample's virus and named it DRC60. Its existence, its date, and its genetic relationship to other HIV strains have all added surprising new elements to our understanding of how and when the AIDS pandemic began. Worobey's work is part of a complicated tale that I'll tell in the book.
Professor Kabongo's lab still contains many paraffin-embedded pathology samples, though none has so far been revealed to have such significance as DRC60.