In his new book, author David Quammen tracks the most deadly pandemics across the world.
In 2000, David Quammen sat around a campfire in the middle of the forests of Gabon, in west Africa, with a dozen Gabonese gold miners. They had taken a break from digging for gold in equatorial mud to work as porters, bushwhackers and cooks for Mike Fay, a tropical field biologist who was traversing 2,000 miles of Central African forest, on foot.
"He took data every step of the way," Quammen, an award-winning author, later wrote, "recording elephant dung piles and leopard tracks and chimpanzee sightings and botanical identifications, all going into his waterproof yellow notebooks in scratchy left-handed print, while the crewmen strung out behind him toted his computers, his satellite phone, his special instruments and extra batteries, as well as tents and food and medical supplies enough for both him and themselves."
Quammen struck up a conversation with two of these crewmen over a fireside dinner of fufu ("like an edible wallpaper paste"), about a rash of deaths in their home village four years earlier. They told Quammen about the group of boys that had gone hunting for porcupines, but instead found a dead chimpanzee. They brought it back to the village, where people cooked it and ate it. Two days later, all of them started getting sick, with vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, headache. Some of the family members who cared for them fell ill, too. In the end 31 people got sick and 21 died. One of the crewmen watched his brother and nearly all of his family die, holding his niece as she took her last breaths.