How pygmies came to be on the bushmeat menu and memories of a primate researcher who worked in both the bush and the lab

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  June 2003:

A Primate’s Memoir:
A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life
Among the Baboons
by Robert M. Sapolsky

Touchstone (c/o Simon & Schuster,
1230 Avenue of the Americas,
New York,  NY  10020),  2001.
304 pages,  paperback.  $14.00.

Eating Apes
by Dale Peterson
with afterword & photos
by Karl Amman
University of California Press
(2120 Berkeley Way,  Berkeley,
CA  94720),  2003.
333 pages,  hardcover.  $24.95.

“I am fairly hardened when it comes to
the suffering of animals,”  Stanford University
professor of biology and neurology Robert M.
Sapolsky says of himself,  two-thirds of the way
through A Primate’s Memoir.    But that does not
seem to describe Bob Sapolsky,  the enthusiastic
friend of baboons and African adventurer whose 21
years of field research in Kenya and neighboring
nations A Primate’s Memoir describes.
“Other more euphemistic terms might be
used–I am pragmatic,  or unsentimental,  or
internalizing,”  Sapolsky continues.  “But I am
hardened.  I do not feel as much as I once did.
When I was a kid,  up through college,  all I
wanted to do was live alone in the bush with wild
animals and study their behavior.
Intellectually,  nothing was as satisfying,  as
pure,  as the study of their behavior in and of
itself,  nothing seemed as sacred as to just be
with animals for their own sake,  and the notion
of animals being pained was intolerable.  But my
interests shifted.  Behavior for its own sake
somehow began to seem insufficient.  ‘Isn’t this
behavior miraculous?’ became ‘Isn’t this
miraculous,  how does it work?’ and I became
interested in behavior and the brain,  and soon I
was interested in the brain itself.”
Sapolsky’s interest in brain research was
far from strictly academic.  He was driven by his
ultimately futile hope of recovering his father
from Alzheimer’s disease.  But he is bluntly
self-condemning about the outcome.
“Nine months each year I would spend in
my lab,  doing my experiments,”  Sapolsky
confesses,  “and the suffering that the animals
would endure there was appalling.  They’d undergo
strokes,  or repeated epileptic seizures,  or
other neurodegenerative disordersŠall to find out
how a brain cell dies,  and what can be done to
prevent it.
“I tried to compensate,  but probably not
enough.  I  remained a vegetarian when in
America.  I would work hard to cut every corner I
could,  to minimize the numbers of animals,  the
amount of pain.  But there was still dripping,
searing amounts of it for themŠThus,  each year,
I was having more of a need to return to the
baboons.  Among the dozens of other reasons to be
there,  it was good to be in a place where I was
not cutting up the animals,  where I was not
killing them.  It was good to be in a place where
they didn’t live in cages.  In a perverse way,
it was good to be in a place where they were more
likely to kill me than the other way around.”
To that point,  A Primate’s Memoir has
unflinchingly described life and death among wild
baboons in the bush and among human villagers
caught up in seemingly ceaseless warfare
involving bandits,  militias,  and hostile tribes
of cattle raiders.  Sapolsky has witnessed
atrocities,  feeling helpless to intervene,
including in Somalia and Rwanda before most
Americans knew their names,  and in Uganda during
the ouster of the cannibal dictator Idi Amin.
But Sapolsky has yet not addressed the
conflict he finds most disturbing:  the
displacement and destruction of almost all other
primates by the human species.
“I had my hands quite full enough already
trying not very successfully to keep individual
brain cells from dying,”  Sapolsky explains.  “It
was too much to try just as unsuccessfully to
save whole species and ecosystems.  Every
primatologist I know is losing that battle,
whether their animals are being done in by
habitat destruction or conflict with farmers or
poaching or novel human disease or government
officials bent on harassment and maliciousness.”
Sapolsky had before him the example of
the late Dian Fossey,  a slight acquaintance,
whom he revered before gradually deciding that
she was the “probable cause of more deaths of
gorillas than if [she] had never set foot in
Rwanda.”  Her ruthless defense of gorillas
against accidental snaring by subsistence hunters
of smaller mammals led,  Sapolsky believes,  to
deliberate retaliatory massacres of gorillas,
and to the discovery that their remains could be
sold.  The previous incidental killings rapidly
became an industry.
Nonetheless,  Sapolsky in his own time
and way commenced an equally vigorous battle
against ingrained local values and practices on
behalf of “his” primates,  the baboons of the
Masai Mara.  The problem was that the refuse
disposal practices of a major tourist lodge and
the unhygienic slaughter and rendering practices
of a well-connected local “big man” were
combining to expose baboons to bovine
tuberculosis.  Corrupt officials would not do
anything about it.  The disease,  besides
directly jeopardizing the baboon population, gave
the lodge staff a pretext to kill nuisance
baboons instead of cleaning up their act.
Fortunately for most of the baboons,
Sapolsky eventually discovered that bovine TB
does not pass directly among them.  Therefore the
outbreak was self-contained.
As this is written,  the olive baboons of
Manyara National Park,  Tanzania,  are reportedly
afflicted with an unidentified bacterial disease,
resembling syphilis,  which causes the testicles
of males to swell and had killed more than 200 by
the end of April.   Tanzanian and Kenyan experts
were hoping to bring the epidemic under control
before it spreads to nearby Tsavo National Park
in Kenya.  There has been little recent news,
however.  The ongoing struggle between
pro-hunting and anti-hunting factions over
control of the Kenya Wildlife Service has
pre-empted most other wildlife news from East
Africa.
As Sapolsky came to realize,  baboons are
neither endangered nor a glamour species.  Saving
them is an animal welfare issue,  not a
conservation issue.  On balance,  they receive no
more global attention and sympathy than the human
victims of local violence, AIDS,  and hunger,
who tend to suffer and die in complete obscurity.

Cutting deals

Sapolsky does not mention whether or not
he ever met Mt. Kenya wildlife photographer and
anti-bushmeat activist Karl Amman.  Acquainted or
not,  their paths must have crossed.
Primatologist Dale Peterson narrates in Eating
Apes how Amman has for 13 years documented the
destruction of gorillas,  chimpanzees,  and
bonobos in Central Africa.  The great apes are
not the most frequent victims of the bushmeat
trade–just the standard-bearers for the rest in
the battle for world opinion and economic clout
enough to save their habitat.  Any wild animal
may be killed for meat,  as logging strips away
their cover,   destroys their food sources,  and
brings thousands of hungry workers and their
families into previously impenetrable territory.
Initially Amman hoped that his photos
would move the World Wildlife Fund  or the
Wildlife Conservation Society,  among other
international groups,  to put real money into
work on the ground to save the apes.  That did
not happen.  Instead they signed unenforced
political agreements and cut a deal with the
biggest logger,  Congolaise Industrielle des
Bois,  which may have protected some habitat –if
corruption and warfare do not undo it–while
more-or-less writing off the rest.
The outcome,  Amman explains in an
embittered afterword,  is that “Some 7,000
inhabitants of Pokola were in 1995 granted
‘traditional rights’ to hunting and bushmeat–
and within a few years that number had doubled.
Nobody was designated to monitor or enforce
anything.  And from there it went straight
downhill,  to the point that only five years
later conservationists had decided that it was
their responsibility to keep certain loggers
economically competitive and profitable.”
Amman tried unsuccessfully to rally
donors and activists against the “feel-good
conservationism,”  as he calls it,  including
with ANIMAL PEOPLE guest columns in March 1996
and April 2000.
“By the year 2000,”  he continues,
“conservationists were asking the donor community
to pay for cleaning up after the loggers.  And
what were the loggers willing to chip in?  Well,
perhaps the collaboration between the Wildlife
Conservation Society and CIB gives us an idea.
CIB agreed to contribute ‘in kind’ $75,000 for a
two-year period of wildlife management in a
concession where the project cost for the first
two years was $640,000.  A little old lady on a
U.S. $1,000 monthly pension,  sending in a $50
check,  would contribute proportionally more than
CIB was giving.”
Ironically,  part of the deal was that
“the Congolese government and WCSŠhave to try to
settle conflicts,  establish understanding of and
collaboration also with the pygmies,”  Amman
recounts.

Cannibalism

The pygmy tribes have historically been
among the most voracious hunters of bushmeat in
the Congo region.  But they also have
bushmeat-eating enemies,  including within some
of the militia factions battling over control of
the Democratic Republic of the Congo during
nearly five years of civil war.
Early in 2003,  after Eating Apes was
published,  the northeastern DRC was hit by the
second major outbreak of Ebola viral hemorrhagic
fever to  emerge since the war broke out.  At
least 128 humans were killed– and as many as 800
lowland gorillas.
With bushmeat scarce,  hungry soldiers
turned on the pygmies as the next most accessible
meat source,  Mbuti Pygmy representative Sinafasi
Makelo complained on May 23 to the United Nations
Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
“Army,  rebel,  and tribal fighters have
been pursuing them in forests,  killing and
eating them,”  wrote Priscilla Cheung of The
Independent.  “Some fighters believed that eating
their flesh would give them magic power,  the
pygmies said,  adding that there had been reports
of markets for the flesh.      Earlier this
year,”  Cheung continued,  “human rights
activists and U.N. investigators confirmed that
tribal fighters and members of one rebel group
killed,  cooked,  and ate at least a dozen
pygmies and an undetermined number of other
tribespeople.”
The Congolese Liberation Movement
reportedly tried 27 of its own soldiers for those
crimes,  but there were apparently other
offenders.
“In living memory we have seen cruelty,
massacres,  and genocide,  but we have never seen
human beings hunted and eaten literally as though
they were game animals,  as has recently
happened,”  Makelo said.
ANIMAL PEOPLE last heard of Amman in May 2002,
after he reportedly coordinated a paramilitary
strike led by a former Rhodesian and South
African military officer against Congolese and
Sudanese poachers in the Central African
Republic.  The mission was jointly funded by the
Dutch-based Hans Wasmoeth Wildlife Foundation and
the Africa Rainforest and River Conservation
Organization,  founded by Bruce Hayse,  M.D.  of
Jackson,  Wyoming.  Hayse was a founder of the
U.S. group Earth First!,  wrote Joseph B.
Verrengia of Associated Press.

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *