SAN RAMON -- Wildlife conservationist Miles Woodruff, a native of San Ramon, has a job that takes him so far off the beaten path that, well, there's usually no path there. And if there is, odds are pretty high he'll find it occupied by an irritable elephant or a 6-foot cobra.
Woodruff, 33, is working alongside a handful of other conservationists -- including famed primatologist Jane Goodall -- in the first project aimed at reintroducing orphaned, wild-born mandrills back into the forests of the Republic of Congo.
The brilliant-faced monkeys are hunted as bush meat not only by hungry forest dwellers, but by armed poachers who carry automatic weapons. Once the adult mandrills are killed, hunters often capture the babies to sell as caged pets.
"When I saw them in cages, I thought 'We need to help these guys get back into the wild,'" recalled Woodruff, who spoke about his work on Saturday at the Dougherty Station Library.
Woodruff met Goodall in 2009 in the Republic of the Congo, where his father worked as an executive for Chevron. He and Goodall discussed the growing field of sustainability before Woodruff returned to the United States. And, that might have been the end of it, but a subsequent near-fatal diving accident forced him to rethink his priorities and recall his conversation with Goodall.
"I was very frustrated by the fact that I was one person in a big world of problems, and she had said that was what she was also, and she had made a substantial change and was just one human ... That inspired me as one human to make a shift."
Woodruff returned to Africa, and began working as a field researcher for the non-governmental group Help Congo, where he worked reintroducing chimpanzees to the wild. When an opening became available at the Jane Goodall Institute, he switched his focus to the brand-new mandrill program at the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Sanctuary in the Republic of Congo. As principal investigator, he works with a team to locate captive mandrills, who most commonly are kept by villagers in small cages their entire life. Once rescued, the mandrills first undergo extensive health screening to make sure they carry no disease. They then are moved to a pre-release enclosure, where they are monitored and receive supplemental food until they learn to forage for themselves.
The program is only five years old, and the first group of eight mandrills was released into the forest a month ago. At least eight more are in the process of preparing for release. New animals continue to arrive at the sanctuary.
The mandrills live only in the countries of Gabon, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of Congo. Much about their society is unknown, Woodruff said.
"They're highly hunted," he explained. "They don't leave nests or signs, and they live in some of the densest (forests) on the planet. There's no way to get a good count of how many are out there, but hundreds are coming out of the forest every year as bush meat."
The mandrill's bright red and blue coloring on their face, genital area and under their fur is a result of a spike in hormones that occurs in the presence of sexually receptive females or during a dominance dispute, Woodruff said. Despite serrated teeth that can reach 2 inches in length, the mandrill is primarily a forager, devouring plants and insects. Researchers believe they also will eat larger animals if the opportunity presents itself, but information is scarce. Their size and color makes them a remarkable sight.
"They're roughly the size of a large pit bull; that's their muscularity and height, but they have the head of a lion and four 'hands,' since their feet grip as well," Woodruff said. "They walk on all fours but also climb and leap like a cat.
"I liken them to rainbow-colored saber-tooth pit bulls," he said. "There's nothing else to compare them to."
Reintroducing the mandrills to the forest is more important than the return of a few animals, Woodruff said. Apart from restoring a man-made scarcity of monkeys, the reintroduction team assists the park's eco-guards in locating poachers. Moreover, their studies contribute to knowledge that will help protect multiple species.
"This is the habitat of gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants and leopards," he said. "We have to do studies on the plants and animal life in the area to see how this release impacts them. This is a critical time for conservation; we need to preserve this wildlife because their numbers are getting very low. We have to make it through this critical time to where the numbers are stable and the park systems are stable and capable of protecting them."
Woodruff, now at home in Brentwood, will return to the sanctuary in May. He's working on both his master's degree in sustainable enterprise as well as his PhD in biological anthropology.
"I didn't come into this as a scientist," he said. "The science came later as a result of being there. I see primates who are very closely related to us who don't deserve to be in cages ...These animals are taken inappropriately, illegally sold and deserve a better life and a better chance."
For program details: Visit http://www.janegoodall.org/
To donate: Contact Miles Woodruff at www.facebook.com/miles.woodruff,
Email: email@example.com; Twitter: twitter.com/miles_woodruff