Meet the Researchers Who Scour the World’s Most Dangerous Corners in Search of Biological Riches

Several armed guards accompanied Luiz Rocha and his colleagues throughout their work in Somaliland. (Image courtesy of Luiz Rocha and the California Academy of Sciences)

Several armed guards accompanied Luiz Rocha and his colleagues throughout their work in Somaliland. (Image courtesy of Luiz Rocha and the California Academy of Sciences)

Entering the remote rainforests of the Congo is like stepping into a scene from Jurassic Park. Ferns stretch high up overhead from the damp forest floor. The air is abuzz with birds and bugs. All around are exotic creatures that exist nowhere else in the world. “You can almost half-imagine a dinosaur peeking out from a tree behind you,” says Eli Greenbaum, a researcher in evolutionary genetics at the University of Texas at El Paso.

In other words, it’s a biodiversity researcher’s paradise. The region, which has remained largely untouched by herpetologists since the end of the colonial era in 1960, is today home to the world’s second largest tropical rainforest and bursting with biodiversity.

There’s a good reason the Congo remains nearly untouched. For all its biological richness, this part of the world is no easy place to be a scientist. When Greenbaum first went as a postdoctoral student in 2007, the region had been embroiled in a decades-long war, and although a peace agreement was signed in 2003, the threat of atrocities still lingered.

Greenbaum saw the prospect of entering the unknown as urgent and exciting. His advisor saw it differently. “I really don’t think you’re going to come back with all your arms and legs,” Greenbaum recalls him saying at the time.

Most researchers decide to do fieldwork in regions a little less fraught and near established field programs—like West Africa, where Greenbaum had previously worked. But as he sought to establish himself in the field, the researcher wanted to carve out a new niche for himself. So he set out for the Congo, where he hoped to collect and describe undiscovered species; gain insight into these creatures’ evolutionary histoies; and contribute to protecting the remaining pristine reaches of rainforest.

That is, if he survived.

Today, Greenbaum still has all his limbs. But, as his advisor predicted, the trip wasn’t easy. He fell ill with malaria. He had run-ins with militants. Once, he was even charged by a silverback gorilla. It was tough, and scary, and in some moments, he questioned why he had come in the first place. And yet almost a decade and a total of nine trips to the Congo later, he’s never regretted that first venture into the rainforest.

Greenbaum is not alone. Though they are relatively few, he is among the select ranks of biologists and naturalists who chase their subjects to the most remote and dangerous corners of the earth, where the looming threat of conflict only intensifies the already formidable suite of challenges of working in developing regions. These researchers face seemingly insurmountable difficulties just to get to these sites—and once they get there, the challenges only grow greater.

What draws them to these (sometimes literal) minefields—and what keeps them coming back, despite the risk?

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EnvironmentMaya Wei-Haas