Not your average African safari
By David McKay Wilson, courtesy of the University of Chicago Magazine
Photo by Julian Kerbis Peterhans
I have a love-hate thing with Africa. As soon as you are there, you say you will never come back. And after you get home for a month, you start raising money for the next trip. It’s the wanderlust, th”
—Julian Kerbis Peterhans
Trekking through the Itombwe Forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, zoologist Julian Kerbis Peterhans, AM’79, PhD’90, followed the local rules, paying “tolls” at every military checkpoint along the way. In this remote region, a hot spot for biodiversity, Kerbis and his five-member research team, which included local scientists, simply wanted to avoid trouble—they were on a mission to collect small, rare mammals. But after one July day, as the group sat around a campfire, a band of Mai Mai descended, brandishing AK-47s.
The militiamen placed the group under arrest, but the head of the Congolese scientific team offered himself in place of the group. The Mai Mai marched him for four hours to their village and held him overnight until payments were made. “It can be like the Wild West out there,” says Kerbis, 56, a professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago and an adjunct curator at the Field Museum.
Militia raids aside, the 2008 expedition to the Itombwe Forest was fruitful. He returned to Chicago with 500 dead specimens of small mammals. By May he and his colleagues had confirmed a new species of shrew that weighs only three grams. They continue to study two other species, documenting physical differences and comparing their genetic makeup, research to be completed within the next year. The specimens have been cataloged and stored at the Field Museum for scientists around the world to study.
Kerbis’s interest in Africa was sparked by a 1972 research trip to Kenya while an undergraduate at Wisconsin’s Beloit College. A biology major, he spent a semester collecting raptors, then performing muscle biopsies to be used in determining levels of the banned pesticide DDT.
At Chicago, studying under anthropologists Russell Tuttle and Ronald Singer, Kerbis was a taphonomist, researching what happens to an animal between death and fossilization by examining bone accumulations unearthed or found in caves. He continued as a research associate in anthropology and evolutionary biology from 1993 to 2005, overlapping with his Field Museum appointment in 1997.
Kerbis has made annual expeditions to Africa to find and describe animals for the past 20 years. The trips can be physically daunting—scaling steep mountainsides, hacking through the tangled forest vegetation, camping far from modern amenities.
“I have a love-hate thing with Africa,” says Kerbis. “As soon as you are there, you say you will never come back. And after you get home for a month, you start raising money for the next trip. It’s the wanderlust, the restlessness, and the whole thing of discovery,” he says. “So many scientists today stay in the lab. That’s not for me. I like to work in the field.”
Originally published on July 27, 2009.