Most of us have relegated our personal heroes to
comic books or movie screens, but the friends, colleagues and loved
ones of Annelisa Marcelle Kilbourn found their ultimate role model
far closer to home. “If there was anyone I knew personally
I could say was a hero to me it was Annelisa,” wrote animal
keeper Mike Skidmore of Lincoln Park Zoo "She did so much of
what most of us only dreamed of doing. I’m glad she was doing
what she believed in and loved.”
Annelisa lived, loved and died saving captive and free-ranging wild
animals and their ecosystems. Devoting her life to a career she
considered a natural extension of herself, Annelisa understood and
accepted the inherent risks of her profession. Tragically killed
the afternoon of Saturday, November 2nd in a small plane accident
in the Lope Nature Preserve in Gabon, Annelisa will be sorely missed
by all. And for those lucky enough to have personally known and
worked with her, Annelisa's indomitable spirit and inexhaustible
passion will outshine even her renowned contributions.
If Annelisa's headline grabbing confirmation earlier this year that
gorillas can succumb to Ebola outbreaks changed the very course
of primate studies and virology, the work was merely a natural extension
of an entire life successfully devoted to her passions. Born in
Zurich, Switzerland on June 27, 1967, Annelisa embodied a spirit
of internationalism and adventure from the beginning. A British
citizen, raised in Europe and educated in America, Annelisa trained
as a pilot and became a black belt in Tai Kwon Do even before majoring
in ecology and environmental biology at the University of Connecticut
in 1990. Participation in the Kenyan Wildlife Ecology & Management
Program merely got Annelisa's feet wet for field work, which continued
enthusiastically throughout her graduate studies and into her professional
career. Download her CV here [PDF format].
Arriving in Sabah, Malaysia in 1996, Annelisa studied the orangutans
of Borneo while based at the Sepilok rehabilitation center. During
the course of her two year mission, Dr. Kilbourn and her wildlife
ranger team relocated more than 140 wild orangutans from dangerous
forest pockets to the better protected wildlife forest reserve.
Her field work also involved orangutan research and identification
through the routine collection and analysis of blood, hair and feces
- Then a groundbreaking approach, now considered standard procedure.
Her team also studied primate parasites, and undertook malaria diagnosis
and treatment. To further supplement her identification and tracking
efforts, Annelisa introduced orangutan tattooing and microchip implantation,
creating an unprecedented record of animal activity in the region.
Following orangutan release back into the wild, Dr. Kilbourn used
helicopter observation to study and monitor orangutan nest and population
densities.Returning to the States and receiving her doctorate in
veterinary medicine from Tufts University in 1996, she immediately
returned to field work.
Devoting herself to with the hands-on protection of free-ranging
elephants in Malaysia, Annelisa and her new wildlife ranger team
rapidly relocated 14 trapped elephants in an exercise that perfected
capture and tranquilization techniques. The rescued elephants were
genetically tested before release back into the forests, an analysis
that revealed the species to be indigenous to Borneo (contrary to
prior speculation). Such findings not only shed new light on the
elephant species itself, but proved vital for efforts used to ensure
their continued survival.
Dr. Kilbourn's work with endangered species continued with the Sumatran
rhinos at Sepilok. Endangered to the point of virtual extinction,
fewer than 30 individual rhinos are confined to three tiny habitats
in the northeastern part of Borneo. Applying the techniques and
personal expertise acquired with her orangutan field work, Annelisa
further honed her craft in an unprecedented effort to rescue the
rarest and most difficult to locate animals on the planet. Few argue
that Annelisa's pioneering work is helping to save the species from
post-doctoral odyssey continued with an internship at Chicago's
Lincoln Park Zoo and Shedd Aquarium. Accepting an associate veterinarian
position at the Shedd, she rapidly honed her professional skills
and acquired an inimitable reputation as a woman capable of accomplishing
whatever she set out to do. Restless when separated from her cherished
field work, Dr. Kilbourn accepted a field scientist position in
2000 with SOS Rhino, a US-based non-profit, non-governmental conservation
organization devoted to saving endangered rhinos, including the
highly jeopardized Sumatran.
Returning to Sabah after an absence of two years, Annelisa established
her ranger team and got right to work. She began with field surveys
to determine population size and density, demographics, nutrition
and risk information.Annelisa's skills as a scientist and researcher
were matched only by her capacity to network with professional colleagues,
government officials and native helpers; she even developed a computerized
wildlife navigation tracking system to facilitate communication
and animal localization. She trained her ranger team to identify
rhinos in the Tabin wildlife reserve, fully utilizing everything
from computerized GPS systems to photo trap cameras. Her scientific
and technical expertise were supplemented by her passion for basic
field work: Finding fresh rhino hoof prints of unrecorded animals
brought several animals, including a mother and a calf, into their
sites and onto the protection agenda.
Dr. Kilbourn was also adroit with animal breeding techniques, helping
to mate the last pair of rhinos at Sepilok. Her reproductive efforts
included complete reproductive evaluations of the male and female,
along with the training of local veterinarians and staff members
on the basics of reproductive testing, care and ongoing management.
Her field research, in conjunction with hard work at the Cincinnati
Zoo, and many scientists resulted in the first captive born Sumatran
rhino in over a century of efforts.
Working with SOS Rhino, Annelisa also did consulting work for the
Wildlife Conservation Society
in Africa. While implementing and conducting research on the health
of free ranging great ape populations, Annelisa revealed that primates
can actually succumb to the Ebola virus. This remarkable discovery
simultaneously helped explain viral transmission to humans and dwindling
ape populations in Gabon, and made Annelisa's work front page news
worldwide. To Annelisa, however, celebrity meant nothing, so long
as she could do what she loved, and live the life she always dreamed
of, that of helping endangered animals and protecting their habitats.
For everyone who ever knew or worked with her, these tasks could
never be separated from Annelisa herself: An international woman
who never knew or accepted boundaries, she worshipped the natural
world and considered herself an organic extension of it. Everything
about Annelisa was spontaneous and natural, yet grounded in a sense
of total commitment, strident professionalism and urgent ecological
Dr. Kilbourn's desire was to return to Sabah in 2003 to expand
her rhino survey work in the Danum Valley conservation area.
Dr. Annelisa Marcelle Kilbourn is survived by her parents, Hans
and Barry Kilbourn, and her sister, Kirsten Kilbourn.
SOS Rhino has established memorial fund in Annelisa’s name
to help continue her work dedicated to the survival of the Sumatran
rhinos in Malaysia. Contributions can be made by clicking the button
below or mailed directly to SOS Rhino 680 N. Lake Shore Drive,
IL 60611. attn: Annelisa Fund. 312.335.0868, fax 312.335.0076.
Inquires emailed to email@example.com.
To help celebrate Annelisa’s life, feel free to contribute
a few words as we remember her, her accomplishments and her spirit
in the Annelisa
Kilbourn online memory book.
Donate to the Annelisa Memorial Fund by clicking
on the button.