By Amy Weaver
Illustrations by Sarah Macy
Conservation biologist Gail Hearn, PhD, has dedicated her career to protecting the biodiversity of Bioko Island, a rich ecosystem of endangered primates, sea turtles and myriad other species, off the coast of West Africa. After 17 years of expeditions, Hearn is hanging up her hat, putting away her passport, and retiring from Drexel and the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program (BBPP). Her leadership, insight and fantastic sense of humor will be missed, but the important work she started will go on. Before she could officially leave us, we had to ask a few parting questions…
When did you decide you wanted to be a biologist/conservationist?
I was one of those kids who loved pets, tended houseplants, and tried to raise caterpillars on my bedroom curtains, so biology was an obvious career choice even before high school. The conservation part came much later, in my 40s, as I truly understood the magnitude of Earth’s current biodiversity losses. I can’t really explain it, but it became very important to me to do what I could to preserve a bit of that biodiversity. Only when I went to Bioko Island in 1990 did I suddenly realize how I would make my contribution.
Well, let’s be honest here: I’m actually not very fond of monkeys. To me, monkeys have always seemed too much like unruly 2-year-old humans, poorly toilet trained and not very cooperative. Two-year-old humans eventually develop into delightful college students whereas monkeys do not.
The monkey angle began at the Philadelphia Zoo, where I did my postdoc and where some of my first undergraduate students became interested in the drill monkey. Dietrich Schaaf, then curator of mammals at the Zoo, wondered why the drill monkeys weren’t breeding successfully in captivity. Our collaboration led to a trip to Bioko Island in 1990, reputed to be a place where drill monkeys existed in large numbers.
It was the overall biodiversity of Bioko Island, not really the monkeys, which sparked my interest in conservation. However, monkeys, and the impressive drill monkey in particular, make great flagship species for conservation efforts. Humans identify with monkeys much more than with say, insects or plants. Monkeys also serve as umbrella species — if you save them, you also save all the less charismatic species in the ecosystem. So let’s just say that monkeys have been very useful to our conservation effort!
What will you miss most and least about the work?
I’ll miss the fieldwork. I’m genuinely happy when I’m in the rainforest, far from civilization.
I won’t miss the red tape that can be so endlessly irritating, both in Africa and back here in the United States. Like biting insects, it’s part of the (eco)system: necessary but not lovable.
Are there any important lessons you’ve learned from your work in Bioko?
Patience and worrying about the details turned out to be much more important than I would have thought. I’ve become really good at worrying.
How many times have you been to Bioko? Will you continue going after you retire?
I lost count once I had traveled to Bioko more than 50 times. I don’t have any plans to return, simply because there are now other things I want to do. Travel is not high on that list of “other things.”
How does teaching in the wild compare to the classroom?
Working with students in the wild is a wonderful experience. Sharing knowledge about what remains of our natural world, and simply being able to show students such a magnificent place as Bioko Island, is exhilarating. Classroom teaching is pretty tepid by comparison, but now, as recording devices continually improve (still and video cameras, sound recorders) it’s much easier to bring those wilderness experiences back to the classroom.
What have been the greatest challenges to your work?
Probably the same challenges that most women of my generation faced in the sciences. We were often not taken very seriously and had to work extra hard to prove that we were effective. I was fortunate that those attitudes changed rapidly during my professional lifetime.
What’s the one thing you couldn’t travel without to Bioko?
My Wellington boots.
There are many, but those where students overcome cultural expectations and misperceptions are my favorites. On one of our first student expeditions, we arrived at Ureca, the only village on the southern coast of Bioko Island, at about dinnertime on New Year’s Eve, totally exhausted from our long journey to the starting point of our research. After greeting the welcoming villagers and hastily eating dinner, we pitched our tents in the schoolyard and went to sleep. I was awakened a little before midnight by genuinely terrified students crowding around my tent. The villagers, they said, were marching toward the schoolhouse (and our tents) chanting and carrying torches, obviously intent on capturing, killing and possibly consuming the helpless students. No, I had to explain, the villagers were processing towards the schoolhouse, which also served as the village church, to celebrate a midnight mass. Catholicism — not cannibalism — was their motivation. Sheepishly, the students returned to their tents and were serenaded for the next hour with hymns by the joyous villagers welcoming the New Year.
What’s the scariest moment you’ve experienced in Bioko?
There might have been some scary moments, but I’ll never admit them if Drexel’s Risk Management office might hear about them. Let’s just say that fortunately nothing really bad ever happened. What scary moments?
Do you ever feel personally attached to the monkeys you observe?
I can get attached to just about anything, even a plant struggling for existence in the middle of a well-traveled trail.
Longest you’ve gone without showering?
Not sure, but it wasn’t on Bioko Island, and for certain not when we were in the field on Bioko Island. There’s so much water that finding a nice place to shower or bathe is easy, and some of our bathing areas are really unbelievably beautiful waterfalls, river rapids and freshwater lagoons.
Favorite native food?
The fruit is great in Bioko: tasty little bananas, amazing pineapples and delicious mangoes.
When you look back on your career, what are you most proud of?
I was very fortunate to be able to convince so many people, students, colleagues, volunteers and donors to help build the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program into an organization that really has been able to make a difference for wildlife on Bioko Island. The model we created, which is based on university collaboration and undergraduate study abroad, can be expanded to many other conservation situations. It turned out even better than I had expected!
So what’s next? Any big plans for retirement?
No big plans, although I am looking forward to setting up my HO gauge trains again. And of course spending more time with my family, including a 2-year-old granddaughter who is already starting to behave more like a person and less like a monkey, a good start toward eventually becoming one of those delightful college students!
THE GAIL W. HEARN FUND has been established in honor of Hearn’s hard work and contributions to biodiversity and education. The fund will support, in perpetuity, activities of the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program, promoting biodiversity conservation on Bioko Island and supporting the international educational activities of Drexel and UNGE students, allowing those who may not otherwise be able to do so the opportunity to study in this unique environment. To learn more about the fund or make a gift, contact Cricket Brosius at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215.895.1059.