After visiting a Conway bear den, author was hooked on science
Photojournalist Dan Drollette indicates the two cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) on a map of Vietnam. The two cities are like baskets of rice on a carrying pole, Drollette said; most of Vietnam's human population is centered in either basket, while wildlife flourishes near the center of the "pole," near the old border between North and South Vietnam. Recorder/Trish Crapo
CORRECTION:Dan Drollette Jr. was trained as a journalist at the University of Massachusetts. While at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, home of the Large Hadron Collider, it was announced that they had found the Higgs boson.dp
A baby bear clinched Dan Drollette Jr.’s decision to be a science writer. In journalism school, he accompanied biologists and their students on a trek to a bear den in Conway in the dead of winter. The students were being taught to perform field work, or, in Drollette’s words, “hang out with the animals, do the fun stuff.”
The group waded through deep snow so the scientists could anesthetize a mother bear and examine her.
“It was really exciting … to see them reach into the bear den and pull out two cubs,” Drollette recalled. “The bears give birth during hibernation.
“When the cubs come out, they’re the size of a kitten. At that stage what you do to keep the cub warm while you’re weighing the mother is hold it. You partially unzip your coat and you put the cub inside. It clings to you. When you try to pull it away, it cries.
“That’s why bears are called ‘charismatic megafauna,’” he added. “Because we relate to them. If I wasn’t interested in writing about (science) before, I was then.”
Drollette had always been fascinated by the wildlife around his parents’ home in Whately and he had watched the television program “Wild Kingdom” avidly in his youth.
An education at the University of Massachusetts that trained him as a journalist and a couple of summers spent working at Yellowstone Natural Park further enhanced his love of nature and its creatures. That bear hug also cemented Drollette’s path toward writing his new book.
“Gold Rush in the Jungle: the Race to Discover and Defend the Rarest Animals of Vietnam’s ‘Lost World’” (Crown Publishers, 310 pages, $25) tells an exciting, ongoing story Drollette began to examine in 1998.
Fresh off a year as a Fulbright fellow in Australia, he noticed that his airline ticket home allowed for stops in a number of world cities along the way. One of those cities was Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam.
A scientist had told the young writer that “amazing stuff” was being done in Vietnam in the field of rare-animal discovery and preservation. Drollette knew that he could live cheaply for a few months in that country so he decided to stop there.
His trip to Vietnam led to a series of articles and a return visit in 2010 that paved the way for “Gold Rush in the Jungle.”
The book focuses in large part on a man Drollette obviously admires. German-born Tilo Nadler runs the Endangered Primate Rescue Center (EPRC) in Vietnam’s Cuc Phuong National Park. Nadler comes across as a larger-than-life figure, fiercely focused on the animals he is trying to identify and save.
Nadler is Drollette’s guide to a number of rare creatures — some rescued, some endangered, some now extinct.
Nadler and his colleagues discover new species in such places as jungles, caves, islands and markets (some finds were originally destined for the table!). Drollette’s book describes these biologists’ efforts to stave off the incursions of hunters, developers and thrill-seekers into animal populations.
It also features a number of photographs taken by the author and his colleagues, including images of the langurs (rare, long-tailed primates) that are EPRC’s pride and joy.
Drollette described his writing as a form of “participatory journalism,” a George Plimpton-esque form of immersion in the lives he is studying. “I hang out in the field. That’s what I try to do for science,” he explained.
Drollette’s participatory approach invites the reader to share his enthusiasm about the work and workers he studies. “Our world is not completely mapped and completely known,” he told me in a tone of wonder. “You can still find a brand new creature.”
Asked what would surprise readers most about his book, he suggested that it might be the effects of the war with which most Americans associate Vietnam.
“War may have protected the wildlife,” noted Drollette. “My image of Vietnam before I went was that it was a bombed-out wasteland. But it has large expanses that were untouched by the war. It’s a physically beautiful country.
“Because of warfare, there was no money to develop the country. And no one’s going to hunt animals in a war zone,” he added.“The irony is that the peace may be more dangerous than war as far as the wildlife goes.”
Drollette called his point of view about the future of Vietnam’s wildlife “guardedly optimistic.”
“If you have a specific project in a specific area aimed at protecting a specific animal, you have a chance of success,” he said. “For the country as a whole, the outcome may be different.”
Drollette’s next book may offer a view of another important place in his professional life: CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. He worked there for the past few years writing articles that translated the organization’s work into layman’s language.
CERN is best known as the home of the Large Hadron Collider. This enormous particle accelerator was designed to find the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle known in the popular press as “the God particle.”
“I was there maybe three months and they actually switched the machine on,” said Drollette. “(During my time there) they announced that they thought they had found the Higgs.”
He hopes to tell the behind-the-scenes story of CERN, which he described as full of people who resemble the character Sheldon on television’s “Big Bang Theory.”
“Very nerdy, introverted, weird,” Drollette said of his former colleagues. “Imagine a place with 3,000 Sheldons. That’s what it was like. Absolutely brilliant characters. But eccentric? Oh my gosh!”
While finishing his first book and contemplating his second, Drollette has made a home for himself in Northampton. His father has helped the writer renovate the formerly un-winterized house he now owns in Northampton’s Laurel Park. This community began as a site for Methodist religious and educational meetings and has evolved into a non-denominational but still culturally diverse neighborhood.
Drollette plans to continue writing from Northampton, although he is open to any opportunity to immerse himself in the world of science anywhere in the world. “There are all sorts of possibilities out there,” he asserted.
Drollette will give a talk and slide presentation about “Gold Rush in the Jungle” at Boswell’s Books in Shelburne Falls on Thursday, June 27, at 6:30 p.m. For further details, call the bookstore at 625-9362.
Tinky Weisblat is a writer and singer who lives in Hawley. Her newest book is “Pulling Taffy” (www.pullingtaffy.com). Tinky is always looking for books by authors with a Franklin County connection to review. If you are a local author — or know of one — please call her at 339-4747 or email her at