SOS Borneo

Annelisa Tribute


SOS Rhino : Borneo : Annelisa Tribute

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 extinction.

Annelisa's 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 responsibility.

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, Chicago, IL 60611. attn: Annelisa Fund. 312.335.0868, fax 312.335.0076. Inquires emailed to

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.


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