Published: June 24, 2014

This article was originally published in the University of Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine. To read the full article, please click here.

At 5 a.m., Professor Herbert Covert sits silently in the Vietnamese jungle, waiting for the morning calls of the yellow-cheeked crested gibbon, an endangered primate. In three other “listening posts” two kilometers apart, pairs of Covert’s Vietnamese colleagues also wait and listen.

Their goal is to count the tree-dwelling gibbons in this protected forest, then ultimately to establish and implement a conservation plan. Gibbons are among the world’s most endangered primates.

Covert is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder. His work in Vietnam, funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies, has a more “profound” effect than other work he could do, he says. For years, Covert has been helping to train Vietnamese scientists in conservation techniques. The listening-post survey vivified the lessons the scientists had learned in classrooms. In the classroom, students might say, “Oh, that’s interesting, and I understand that.” But in the field, their experience was more visceral, Covert says. Rather than just studying sheets of data, the scientists excitedly described hearing gibbons from different vantage points. Covert says it is gratifying to watch the transformation from “people looking at data sheets to people really being energized by the experience.”

Gibbons need “immediate conservation action” in southern China, Indochina, India, Indonesia and Malaysia, he adds. Vietnam is home to five of the 25 most endangered primates. The country, about the size of Colorado, is also home to 90 million people. Biodiversity is particularly at risk there, Covert says.

“It’s now or never for Vietnam in terms of conservation,” Covert says. Because Vietnam has the political will to support conservation and beginning to get economic means to do so, he is eager to lend a hand.

Covert was awarded [a] Fulbright in 2008-09 to work with SIE. One of their joint activities was another week-long training to the scientists in the MacArthur program he had worked with during their second training course.

Covert and the young scientists reviewed material they’d previously discussed and explored emerging technologies. Also that year, they graduated from the training course. Each of the trainers gave a 15-minute presentation on what the training had meant to them.

“In many respects, it would be like getting a master’s degree in protected-area management. These people had skills now that were better than people in most protected areas in Southeast Asia. Plus, they were a network of 15 (scientists), and they could always reach out and talk to one another.”

Covert found these collaborations particularly rewarding. “It resonated with me as a ‘teaching scholar’ where it allowed me to do teaching and training, which I really enjoy, and allowed me to do scholarship, which I really enjoy, and also allowed me to be involved with what I would consider to be service—where we go beyond the ivory towers of the university.”

“It’s something that I consider to be outreach that I’m really proud of. I’m confident that I’m making a difference for the environment and for conservation in a way that’s much more profound than when I publish a peer-reviewed article which is read by some people,” he said, adding, “This is not demeaning peer-reviewed articles, of course.”

The current project in Vietnam, funded by the Great Ape Conservation Fund of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will conclude in 2015.