Ute Eilenberger, who is the mother of one of our Y9 pupils, also happens to be Germany’s expert on wild gorillas. Read the fascinating story of how she earned her title of ‘Jungle Woman’.
Your book is called ‘The Jungle Woman’. Can you explain how you ended up with that title?
The publisher who commissioned my autobiography called me that. The book focusses on the six months that I spent, with two other researchers, in total isolation in the Congo jungle. I spent three years working with primates in Congo and Rwanda, but the first six months in Congo captured the public imagination, since we were in such a remote location. We had to fly with missionary airplanes, then drive for two days, building bridges as we went, to cross rivers, before travelling by canoe, and finally walking for eight hours to reach the research site. The remoteness was important to ensure that the primates had not been hunted by local people, and that that they had therefore not learned to fear humans.
It must have been pretty difficult living in such a remote place.
The living conditions were certainly primitive. We slept in tents, which were always wet, since it rains so intensively in the primary rainforest. Our books became mouldy. I even had mushrooms growing inside my camera lens!
Since everything that we needed had to be carried in, we travelled light. I carried a 20 kilo pack, which contained my tent, boots, camera, and little else.
We didn’t take in enough food, so we were pretty thin when we got out – I lost 10 kilos! There was little food available to buy in the capital due to the political unrest, so we ended up surviving on a monotonous diet of rice, noodles, dried milk, tomato concentrate and tinned porridge – all cooked over an open fire. Our rice, at the beginning, contained a few beetles, but as time went by, the beetles multiplied, so our staple meal became ‘rice with beetles’! We supplemented this with bananas, and occasionally tomatoes or cassava (which tastes like glue, but fills you up!) which we were given to us by local people. (These people lived about 30 minutes away in a small settlement, – they had been brought there by the Americans who first established the research site some years before, to help to carry equipment in and out of the jungle.)
One thing we had plenty of was water! We drank brown water from our local stream, taking care to wash downstream!
Our single ‘luxury’ was ironed clothes! A young guy from the settlement would guard the camp during the day, while we were out doing research, and he ironed our clothes, using an old-fashioned iron with coals inside – this was to kill the mango fly eggs lurking there. So, despite the conditions, we always looked very well-presented!!
You were surrounded in the jungle by very large, and potentially dangerous animals, were you ever afraid for your life?
Gorillas may be very large, but they are vegetarian and harmless, unless you touch their young. I am not a fearful person, so I actually found the experience to be exciting. More worrying were the snakes, and, of course, parasites, such as mosquitos (I have had malaria five times in my life), and the army ants which ran up your trousers, and bit you in your most sensitive areas! We would have rubber bands at the end of our trousers, but that didn’t protect our ankles, which were constantly bitten, and never healed, due to the wet conditions. We also had ‘primatologists’ neck’ which comes from staring up at trees, sometimes for ten hours at a time!
Was there a back-up plan if there was a medical emergency?
Luckily nothing serious did happen. I could probably have used my veterinary skills to operate, if needed – I had my surgical bag, but no anaesthetics, although we did carry strong painkillers. My sister is a doctor, and she provided some equipment, including needles, and also a book on how to deal with various injuries.
Did you ever feel like giving up?
It didn’t occur to me to! And that was despite the fact that my research didn’t go how I had expected. I was investigating a hypothesis of the relationship between two different species of monkey – and it turned out that they don’t have a relationship! I also didn’t get on well with my fellow researchers, and I had left my boyfriend in Germany, and mail didn’t come through because of the riots, so it did feel very isolating. But I stayed because I found the whole experience to be incredibly fascinating.
I loved the nature. At night you would hear animal sounds, and even to this day, I don’t sleep deeply, because I’m always listening. At the time, all the big cats and the forest elephants had already been hunted and killed in that area, so it was mainly primates, big birds, lots of snakes and spiders. I loved the experience.
Even though I had funding from the German government for a year, I only had a visa for six months, and I had to leave after that time, because, remote though we were, and even though the country was in turmoil, a Congolese official trekked for weeks to find us in the jungle and check our papers! I was sad to leave, but, after six months I had begun to think that there must be more to life than trees!
But you went back to the jungle again.
Yes, another six months in another part of the Congo, but this was a different type of experience. I spent the week in the jungle, but in a hut which had the luxury of a shower! I came out at the weekends, and stayed in a lovely house, overlooking a lake, with gardens, a cook, and even neighbours with whom to socialise! There I gathered data for my PhD on the impact of parasites from the local human population on the gorillas. I found that they were able to treat themselves by eating plants with medicinal properties – like the local people, they knew what to eat to heal themselves.
While I was there I cared for a two year old baby gorilla – it had been ordered by a rich man in Rwanda as a house pet, and poachers killed the whole family to capture the baby, who was in turn found and confiscated by park rangers. She came to live with me, because she was too young to survive alone. She grew very attached to me, even coming into my sleeping bag at night. Since baby gorillas learn from the mother how to feed, she would sit beside me when I was eating, sticking her muddy fingers into my food! I called her Kidole which is ‘finger’ in the local language, inspired by Diane Fossey’s gorilla ‘Digit’. The local people called me ‘Mama Kidole’ because they couldn’t pronounce my name. When I left the jungle, Kidole went to stay with a friend of mine who worked with chimpanzee orphans. Unfortunately, because she had developed a relationship with me, and I was no longer around, she shut down emotionally. She died shortly afterwards.
My next spell in the jungle was when I spent two years at the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project in Rwanda. This was dangerous work because it was six years after the genocide, and the rainforest areas between Rwanda and Uganda, which had previously been uninhabited, were now home to rebel militia, with guns. So every time I went into the jungle, I was accompanied by six guys with machine guns.
It must have been very difficult to adjust to life in Europe after your experiences in Africa.
I wasn’t keen to return at all. After life in Congo, Rwanda and Sudan, Europe seemed very dull – too civilized; I didn’t see the challenge! However, it is also safe, and that matters when you have a child. He was two when we moved back to Europe.
Does your son share your interest in animals?
He loves cats! However, I think that children now are a bit less into nature than we were when we were growing up. They spend much more time indoors on screens, and much less outside. I remember being out all day in summer – so we were much more connected to nature. It’s a different world.
My own interest in primates started when I was two – hearing about Jane Goodall from my parents’ National Geographic magazines. I re-read those magazines, and the books that my parents had about animal behaviours, over and over through the years, and I knew that that is what I wanted to spend my life studying.
Did you meet Jane Goodall?
Not yet. One of the ideas for the baby gorilla was to take her to one of the Jane Goodall Orphan Chimpanzee Centres, because there happened to be another baby gorilla there. However, when I visited, I was unimpressed by how the chimpanzees were kept – aggressive males in solitary confinement, and in chains, since nobody could handle them. Her legacy is to what I saw at that centre, though, but the fact that she influenced politicians to improve protection. I think the issue was lack of funding.
Luckily, in Rwanda, revenue from tourists has helped a lot in the protection of the mountain gorillas in recent years. In fact the population is rising to the extent that the forest soon won’t be able to support it.
In Congo, it’s a different story – with non-stop war, it’s impossible to protect the people, not to mention the animals. Within six years of my departure from the jungle there, all the males of the groups that I had researched had been killed by the military, not for food, since there is a taboo in Congo about eating gorilla, but for fun.
Could you envisage going back to the jungle in the future?
I would love to, but I think that it is unlikely to happen. I see a lot of positions in Congo, since I guess nobody wants to go there because it’s so dangerous – but, tempted though I am, I’d quite like to stay alive for my son!
Interview by Olive Fenton