There was simply no way I could have predicted that a groggy conversation over a cup of over-sugared coffee would be directly responsible for making me cry on a crowded plane as I headed back home to Hawaii.
Unlike just about every press person at this year’s AAAS meeting, I wasn’t looking for something to write about. My interest and presence at this conference of the largest general scientific society in the world was somewhat philanthropic. Way back in May of last year, I was asked by Linda Cendes to be on a AAAS panel organized by Cornelia Dean to talk about the importance of social media in science. At their suggestion, I pitched a workshop as well, both of which made it into the program. I was at AAAS as a resource, to help convince scientists of the importance of social media and help answer their questions about emerging media technologies. At a conference boasting over 8,000 people and over 1,000 press registrants, it was pretty much dumb luck that Dan Droulette Jr. and I ended up in conversation in the press coffee room.
I was not at AAAS as a biologist, but anyone who reads this blog quickly recognizes my deep passion for the natural world. So when Drollette mentioned he just wrote a book on incredible biological diversity of Vietnam, I was intrigued. I have relished first hand accounts of conservation ever since I read Douglas Adams’ Last Chance To See when I was a young girl. I’ve since re-read it at least a dozen times, and to this day, a copy as a gift from me is a token of deep affection reserved for those I hold in the highest regard. Last Chance To See continues to inspire me not only as an animal lover, but also as a writer. Vanessa Wood’s Bonobo Handshake enthralled me from cover to cover. And halfway through, Dan Drollette Jr.’s Gold Rush In The Jungle made me cry in public.
The book is heartfelt and emotional, using Drollette’s personal and incredible experiences in Vietnam (and a few other places) to depict the biological ‘gold rush’ that has swept the wartorn nation. The discovery of an abundance of rare and unique wildlife has drawn a broad crowd to the wilderness of Vietnam, from biologists seeking a once-in-a-lifetime discovery to hunters aiming at prized trophies and even poachers who sell the parts of Vietnam’s endemic animals for top dollar in the alternative medicine black market. The end result is that the flora and fauna of Vietnam has never been more valuable, or more threatened. Drollette’s firsthand accounts of the animals locked in a almost hopeless battle against extinction is endearing, and the way he describes the historical sights like the Hanoi Hilton in a country synonymous with war in American thought is haunting. By what moved me quite literally to tears was his honest and gut-wrenching descriptions of the people that give everything they have to protect the rare wonders of our world that are so quickly slipping out of existence.
Drollette first describes Tilo Nadler, founder and director of Vietnam’s Endangered Primate Rescue Center and perhaps the last hope for Vietnam’s primates, as someone “more comfortable with wild animals than with Homo sapiens” who seemed to “curl up inside like a fist.” Despite the gruff appearance, though, Drollette comes to realize just how emotional and warm Nadler really is, especially when it comes to the animals he works to save. Throughout the chapters, Drollette excels at exposing the deep passion that drives men like Nadler — the kind of passion that drove me to become a biologist in the first place. Drollette eloquently reveals the special way in which scientists connect to the world they study and fight for. He does this so well that the descriptions resonated with me deeply, and it was that resonance that, quite literally, moved me to tears.
Drollette’s account of scientific humanity, of the fragile and emotional side of biologists, is exactly what society needs to see, and is exactly the reason I push scientists to engage in social media. Too often, scientists are seen as egotistical misanthropes, but as one of them, I know better. I have felt the pain of loss that Drollette depicts as botanist Steve Pearlman explains how rare plants become like friends, and when one dies, he thinks “yeah, I’m not coming here again. I’ll go out and get drunk or something.” I empathize with Alan Rabinowitz’s account of how, when he was young, animals helped him overcome stuttering, as my own pets and the natural world around me as a child were my way of coping with a broken home and a tough social situation at school. People that go into science, especially conservation biology, usually do so from a very passionate place, and I simply love that Drollette has exposed that so beautifully in this book.
There is more to the book than that, of course. You can’t help but laugh when a chapter starts with “when you’re walking on an unmarked jungle trail in Vietnam, no matter how short the hike, the last thing you want to hear from your guide is ‘I can’t read a map'”. It is at times hilarious, and at other times disturbing. One thing is for sure, it is a hard book to put down. Lucky for me, I had an 11 hour flight, and didn’t have to.
When I was handed a galley copy of Gold Rush In The Jungle to read, I expected a colorful account of endangered creatures from a hopefully engaging first person perspective. This book is that, but that is not what makes it worth reading. It is Drollette’s intimate description of the people who love those animals that makes it a gem amongst conservation books.
So, Dan, to answer the question I kind of left dangling at the end of our conversation: yes, I will read, review and recommend your book. I do so with all of my emotional, conservationist heart.