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All the Apes howl as one

Among African Apes: Stories and Photos from the Field
Martha Robbins, Christophe Boesch (ed.)

Standing eye-to-eye with a fully-grown male gorilla is not everyone’s cup of tea. Nor is getting between two silverbacks engaged in single combat over the hierarchy in their group. Unless, of course, you’re a biologist studying gorilla behaviour. Like Martha Robbins, behavioural scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. Together with Christophe Boesch, who is also Director at the Leipzig-based Max Planck Institute and has been active in the African rainforest for years, she has put together a collection of reports from scientists studying chimpanzees and gorillas and presented them in this book in diary form.

The researchers take readers along on their forays into the jungle and describe individual cases to show how the African apes find their way in their environment and how they live together. Sad incidents feature just as strongly as moments full of excitement and happiness. Yet the scientists did not restrict themselves to including only the most spectacular encounters with apes in their dairy. Many of their reports describe the extremely arduous day-to-day life in the rainforest. Often, the biologists combed the forest for weeks in search of their subjects, hearing at most their calls from afar. They analysed their diet and classified thousands of plant species in the process. And they collected stool samples for DNA analyses, from which they were able to determine family relationships within a group. The scientific work is thus not always as exciting as one might imagine. In order that readers nevertheless get to learn something new about the life of chimpanzees and gorillas, the scientific accounts are interspersed with sections devoted to topics including illnesses, social relationships and the animals’ use of tools.

When the scientists come across a group of apes, the gruelling search, sore feet, hordes of mosquitoes and leeches are all forgotten. Then everything suddenly happens fast: dark shadows race through the undergrowth, the air is full of shrieking and drumming, and the scientists can barely keep up with what’s causing all the commotion. Then, out of the blue, the whole episode is over and the scientists are left to reconstruct the course of events in their notes.

One of the most vivid places in the book is the part when the scientists find one of the animals dead on the ground after one such commotion. Gottfried Hohmann and Barbara Fruth observed bonobos kill one of the males in their group who had previously attacked a mother and her baby. Josephine Head reports of full-fledged “wars” between groups of chimpanzees in the rainforest of Gabon, during which animals are repeatedly killed. Seeing apes, even the otherwise peaceful bonobos, kill members of their own species still causes dismay among even experienced scientists. They are often unable to explain these violent outbursts. However, their observations demonstrate: among primates, violence against other members of the species is not a uniquely human trait.

Reading this diary makes it clear just how difficult it still is, even in the age of GPS and digital video recordings, to observe apes in their natural environment. It seems to be almost easier to analyse the animals’ DNA than it is to document their social behaviour over a longer period: the animals will not simply accept humans being near them. Months of patiently approaching them in order to earn their trust is required. It often takes months for a group to become “habituated” to a stage where they behave naturally in the presence of people and the scientists can begin their research work.

This explains why there are major gaps in our knowledge of chimpanzees and gorillas. Not to mention local differences within a species. What scientists do know is that apes have their own cultures and, for instance, that the chimpanzees of Côte d’Ivoire use tools differently to the chimpanzees of Tanzania. Yet many such cultural differences remain unknown.

There is a great deal still to discover. But the scientists themselves can become a danger to the animals, given that individuals accustomed to the presence of humans are easy prey for poachers. Being in close contact with humans also carries the risk of the animals being exposed to diseases. In recent years it has become evident that infections present the biggest threat to Africa’s apes after loss of habitat and poaching. An Ebola infection, for example, decimated 90 per cent of the gorilla population in a Congolese national park within the space of a few months. Strict hygiene regulations are in place to prevent human diseases being transferred to gorillas and chimpanzees: scientists and eco-tourists alike need to wear a face mask in the vicinity of apes, and anyone who is sick or suffering from a cold is not permitted to enter the forest.

Nevertheless, the benefits of the research still outweigh the risks – on this the editors and authors of the book agree. The presence of scientists in the jungle is a proven deterrent to poachers. Moreover, the scientists’ knowledge of how apes live and behave enables them to develop concepts for eco-tourism. The money that tourists pay to be able to watch gorillas or chimpanzees in the wild is an incentive for the local population to protect the animals. And the old adage applies similarly to apes: You can’t protect what you don’t know.

Martha Robbins, Christophe Boesch (ed.)
Among African Apes: Stories and Photos from the Field
182 pages, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles 2012

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