SUPPLIED \ EMMA MOLONE
Holly Carroll has been likened to a young David Attenborough. Like Sir David, she is a zoologist. And like the great British television presenter, she uses film and television to reveal the unknown stories of wildlife. In Carroll’s case primates, especially the great apes, are her speciality.
Unlike Attenborough, she is not a household name … not yet anyway.
Their backgrounds are very different. He is an 86-year-old Cambridge-educated knight of the realm and veteran of 50 years of presenting natural-history programs. She is a 37-year-old American from Alaska, where she works as a fisheries scientist “to pay the bills”. Both share a passion for wildlife and natural history.
Carroll has just returned from Africa, where she made a 3D feature film, The Last of the Great Apes. The mainly Australian crew included award-winning cinematographers Mark Lamble and Michael Dillon and Melbourne director Jeremy Hogarth.
This was the first time the six great apes – orang-utans, the western and eastern lowland and mountain gorilla, the chimpanzees and bonobos have been filmed in 3D.
She is excited that the film will allow the audience to feel as though they are in the jungle with the apes, watching from among the grasses and trees.
All the great apes are endangered, but the mountain gorilla’s situation is the most fragile. Only about 800 exist – and only in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“Film and television is the best way to reach people. The more people you reach the more you can inspire them and create a greater impact to save the apes,” Carroll says.
After a first trip to central Africa to film the bonobos and gorillas, Carroll and her crew travelled to Indonesia to film the orang-utans of Borneo and Sumatra before returning to Africa to film chimpanzees.
The film, made by the Queensland production company Visionquest, is a theatrical documentary that follows Carroll as she meets the people on the ground fighting a race against time to save the great primates.
The Last of the Great Apes is to be released internationally next year. As well, a six-part television series is scheduled to be shown on the Discovery Channel.
“It’s important because the great apes are our closest living relatives, so it is an opportunity to study them,” Carroll says. “But the most important reason is because of their environmental impact.
“They are the gardeners of the forest. They eat the fruits of the forest and disperse them. Forests are our only ‘sink’ for carbon dioxide.
“If a fruit falls from a tree onto the ground in the forest, it will just lie there. For many seeds to germinate the fruit has to pass through the gut of a primate because it’s evolved to need the special digestive enzymes to break it down.
“Some trees have even evolved so that their fruit is closer to the trunk, so, for instance, a heavy orang-utan can reach the fruit with an outstretched arm.”
With filming complete, Carroll has returned to the US, where she will interview Dr Jane Goodall at a United Nations peace ceremony in New York.
Goodall, a world-famous British primatologist, spent decades in Africa conducting ground-breaking research into the behaviour of apes. Now aged 78, she founded the institute in 1977 as a global not-for-profit organisation that works on behalf of chimpanzees and other great apes and supports programs in sustainable agriculture, wildlife research, education and community-centred conservation.
Carroll is also the first ambassador of the Jane Goodall Institute, Australia.
Earlier this year Carroll spoke to 500 women in Melbourne as a guest at a Love Your Planet lunch hosted by environmental warrior Jason Kimberley.
“I worship Jane Goodall, I’ve known about her since I was a child,” she said. “My mother is a great fan of hers and she introduced me to her work. When they asked me to be an ambassador for the Jane Goodall Institute in Australia, I was ‘like, of course! I would be honoured’.”
Carroll had the 10 women at her table in her thrall as she talked passionately about her work and the attempts to save the great apes.
“The biggest threat to the mountain gorillas is the loss of habitat, but for the chimpanzee it is human predatory behaviour,” she says.
“The wars in Africa mean rebels are hiding in the forest. They kill chimps, which they sell for meat, often on the commercial market, not just taking it home for their families. They take the babies from their mothers to sell. There is still a black market around animal trading.
“I want this film to show how locals are making a difference.”
“Bush meat in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a serious problem. Its use is growing as a result of desperation as people are displaced. In Sumatra and Borneo orang-utans are shot and killed because they raid the palm-oil plantations or they are killed so their babies can be taken as pets.”
Holly Carroll is no stranger to Africa. Her first film, Wild Ladies of Viramba, made for the BBC and Animal Planet, documented the year she spent in Tanzania’s Mikumi National Park among a troop of baboons. Her unrestricted access to the troop allowed Carroll to show their life, their trials and tribulations and social structure in detail rarely seen.
Preparations for her latest arduous journey included inoculations for tetanus, yellow fever, measles, hepatitis A, B and C and a course of anti-malaria medication.
The prospect of 60 days straight working 13 hours a day did not faze her.
“What’s scary is doing a two-day journey to get to the jungle and looking like an entourage of cars filled with expensive-looking cases.
This 50-kilogram warrior walked into the forest with a 10-kilogram backpack, film crew and sometimes 10 armed guards.
“That’s because it’s a national park, and in many of the national parks people have been murdered.”
Getting to the western lowland gorillas in Mondika in the Republic of Congo involved a six-hour car ride over rutted roads, a three-hour boat ride and then a three-hour walk.
Her passion for the task is palpable. “It doesn’t matter if you have a national park. Nothing will improve and apes will not be protected if there is no security,” she says. “Security for apes is the No.1 priority.
“However, the mountain gorilla population has actually increased.
“Twenty years ago a United Nations paper put the number of mountain gorillas at about 300. Now there are 800.
“What happened was that the locals saw that they could make money from tourism. Many became rangers and local women worked looking after the orphans.
“I want this film to focus on the true on-the-ground conservationists and show how locals are making a difference.”
Carroll also hopes the film will highlight the heroic work of the rangers who try to protect the great apes.
In the past 10 years, Congo has lost “hundreds of rangers,” she says.
“If the breadwinner in the family dies, the kids can’t go to school or they may die of malaria because they can’t afford mosquito nets.
“These men are living their lives fighting to protect the great apes and dying for the cause.”
Carroll joins a list of distinguished women who have travelled to distant places to study or save great apes.
Her hero Jane Goodall went to Africa as a teenager in the 1960s. Birute Galdikas studied orang-utans in Indonesia starting in the 1970s and Dian Fossey was famous for her work among mountain gorillas, also in the 1970s.
All three were sent to their field sites by the British anthropologist and archaeologist Louis Leakey, who believed that women had the patience, resourcefulness and attention to detail to work with primates.
These women lived among primates for years, something that Carroll can’t imagine doing.
“It would be such a presumption to say I was continuing their work,” she says.
“They were the original founders, the original researchers and they created a lasting legacy.
“When I worked in Tanzania, I walked with the baboons for nearly a year; I studied their grooming and lifestyle. But I could not imagine living in the forest for two decades like those women.”
Even so, her hero remained close throughout this latest adventure. In that 10-kilogram backpack, Holly Carroll carried a 40-year-old copy of Jane Goodall’s book, In the Shadow of Man.
Dog-eared and pecked by the free-flying canary in her family home, this was the book that inspired Carroll’s own career with nature and the great apes.