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DQ Blog

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 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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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.

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NOVEMBER 2014. WEST AFRICA

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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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.


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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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.

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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DECEMBER 2012. SERENGETI NATIONAL PARK, TANZANIA

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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JANUARY 2011. KINSHASA AND POINTS EAST

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