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Melissa Remis

Professor of Anthropology

Anthropologist wants everyone to take notice of the gorilla in the room

A gorilla's size and strength often makes it a popular villain or misunderstood creature in movies, but Melissa Remis knows that these large apes play a starring role in a delicate ecosystem that also provides for their human neighbors. Her research, as such, is driven by the desire to preserve both gorillas and their environment.

Remis, who is known locally in the Central African Republic as The Gorilla Lady, is a biological anthropologist who studies gorilla behavioral ecology and primate conservation. Over the years, she has made nine trips to the Central African Republic to study her 350-pound subjects, and she spent three years living in the Dzanga-Sangha Dense Forest Reserve while working on her dissertation. Her research was considered groundbreaking because she was one of the first to study lowland gorillas, a more elusive ape than the better-known mountain gorillas.

Remis has spent the last 16 years expanding her focus from the world's largest living primates to the entire ecosystem — the animals, plants and humans around them. The natural star appeal of the gorillas helps draw attention to the challenges faced by their habitat, Remis says.

"Gorillas, just like elephants, are charismatic and prominent so people pay attention to what I am doing," she says. "They wouldn't pay attention if it was duikers, the local antelope. We can benefit from this attraction and people's desire to see gorillas survive."

While people around the world are passionate about gorillas and elephants, the local community is more concerned with the duikers, small antelope that serve as a primary food source. Some may view the gorillas as more of an economic good and see the elephants as problem because they damage crops, yet both are subject of local legend and lore. Remis understands the perspectives of the local culture as well as the importance of how each animal, plant and human lives side-by-side in the same environment.

She wants the rest of the world to understand too.

"People feel isolated from what is going on in these other places in the world, so my job is to understand how the forests are changing, and to communicate and educate," Remis says.

Remis' work continues even when she is across the globe in her Indiana office. Three of her doctoral students are working on research from her field site. Additionally, she and her team train locals as field assistants and engage local university students in fieldwork.

"The local community members are so economically marginalized they don't have the luxury of dreaming big," she says. "We've been working one-by-one. One was helping us haul water in the forest when he was a young boy, and now he is trying to get an anthropology degree and he's back at my camp collecting data. That is extremely rewarding."

The community outreach is an unexpected form of sustainability, but something that Remis is proud to be engaged in.

"I have a legacy (in Africa), and that is really meaningful to me," Remis says. "Now there are folktales and stories that include the work we are doing with the gorillas. Who would have imagined that you would have a place thousands of miles away where people would remember you because of what you are trying to accomplish for their future?"

Photos by: Andrew Hancock