LAFAYETTE -- How does a kid who grew up in the Bay Area end up in the Republic of Congo, helping save endangered mandrills?

If you are Miles Woodruff, principal investigator of Jane Goodall Institute's mandrill reintroduction program, you bounce from San Ramon's Bollinger Canyon Elementary School to various cities in the United States and back to Lafayette's Acalanes High School, before attending Diablo Valley College and John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill. Your father is a manager for Chevron, running the company's operations in the Congo.

Along the way, you study fine cuisine at a culinary institute and become a rather angry young man, incensed about social injustice and environmental ignorance. You astound your former teachers, who knew you as a wild child, a poor student, by accumulating academic degrees and establishing yourself as a business owner. You are part of Ultimate Game Chairs, a company selling an eclectic mix of goods, from towels to sponges to video lounge chairs.

Then, you meet environmental activist Jane Goodall.

"She just talked conservation into my head," Woodruff said in an interview during a rare visit to his former stomping grounds in the East Bay. "I was the farthest thing from a scientist. She inspired me to live with chimpanzees."

Woodruff said that, before working as a field researcher in HELP Congo's chimpanzee release program during 2009 and 2010, the closest he'd ever come to having an "exotic relationship" with an animal was the family's cat, Ashes, who lived to the remarkable age of 20. And searching for a connection between his upbringing in an affluent community and navigating in his present habitat, he says both locations are bilingual, filled with cars and populated by people on cell phones.

"People have to eat, so that's the same. I'm a chef, so food stands out," Woodruff said. "There's no public transportation or Internet in the Congo, so people are completely dependent on their cars and phones -- old phones, without screens."

But both the Bay Area ane the dense, dangerous jungles of Africa have also produced people who he said are passionate about preserving nature.

"John Muir locked down forests in a time that was critical. Because of him, we have areas that are still beautiful." In the Congo, he said people work diligently with NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) to halt the bushmeat trade that is ravaging the mandrill population.

Mandrills, monkeys closely related baboons, are hunted illegally, with poachers selling the 80-pound males for meat and the babies as pets, after killing their mothers. Woodruff's PowerPoint lecture, used at an early April presentation at the Lafayette Library, showed footage of a chimpanzee, nurturing a python the animal had "adopted," and fascinating glimpses of mandrills, rubbing their chests against trees to scent them; displaying their 2 1/2-inch teeth while yawning or engaged in threatening behaviors -- and romping, exuberantly, upon re-release.

Remarking that he now "thinks like a scientist," Woodruff explained the data he and his team are collecting.

"We're testing their stress levels, gathering feeding behavior information, using collars with GPS to track their movements and location," he said. "I used to think of science as people sitting in lab coats, but there's a whole other side of it. We are people fighting to survive, living in the wild, pushing to explore."

On June 9, 2015, the collars mounted on the eight mandrills Woodruff is working to reintroduce to the jungle will "pop off and they will be free." He said the sight of animals living "as they're supposed to" will be amazing and gratifying.

"A kid from Acalanes and people from expatriate countries came together to help animals reclaim there home," he said, sounding awestruck by the achievement.

But then, mindful of the enormous tasks ahead, -- and the ever-present need for financial support to complete his project -- Woodruff's business brain reawakened. He said releasing the mandrills will cost "several hundred thousand dollars," and that the best way to have an impact is to support JGI's efforts. Saving threatened elephants, leopards, gorillas, chimpanzees and mandrills by educating and employing local people--both here in the Bay Area and in the Congo -- is the current quest of this kid from Acalanes.

If you want to help
Here is the link for general JGI donations:
www.janegoodall.org/civicrm/contribute/transact?reset=1&id=21

To donate directly to the mandrill project, contact Miles Woodruff directly, at www.facebook.com/miles.woodruff or miles@greenmba.com