Among African Apes

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  September 2011:

Among African Apes
Edited by Martha M. Robbins & Christophe Boesch
University of California Press
(2120 Berkeley Way,  Berkeley,
CA  94704),  2011.  196 pages,  hardcover.  $29.95.

A series of essays and memoirs by field researchers,  Among African Apes both intrigues and troubles the reader.  Editor Martha M. Robbins says her life is often perceived as glamorous. It is not. Sometimes Robbins and her colleagues sit for hours just waiting for animals to appear. Collecting and then analyzing data is tedious work.

Of one expedition,  Robbins recalls,  “I had itchy mosquito and black fly bites everywhere.  I knew that to get through the day I should stop complaining to myself and be more positive about finding apes in the forest.”

Cleve Hicks in “Bili, Chimpanzee in the Gangu Forest,”  adds vivid further detail about the realities of field primatology: “Although it is exciting to find such a large number of chimpanzee nests, the swamp is slowing us down,   and we only have a day or two before we must return to the village.  By the time we reach the far shore of the flooded swamp,  having lifted our boots over innumerable clumps of elephant dung,  it is early afternoon and we are exhausted. We are relieved to be on dry land again.”

The effort yields interesting information about social relationships between males and females,  tool use and traditions, and disease in wild chimpanzees–and stunning color photos of gorilla families in their natural habitat.

Beyond offering captivating stories,  Among African Apes is disturbing.  More than 25 years after Dian Fossey died in 1985 while studying gorillas in Rwanda,  gorilla and chimpanzee habitat is still rocked by tribal warfare.  The project in the Congo that Hicks diligently pursued for at least five years was abruptly shut down in 2007 by an illegal invasion of gold miners into the Bilil-Uere Game Reserve. Poachers shoot at or threaten scientists.

The great apes are losing their habitat to development and deforestation,  and are slaughtered for bushmeat.  Human population continues to surge,  devouring wildlife preserves to make room for farms and plantations.  Though the preserves are a valuable source of tourist income for poverty-stricken nations,  pursuit of individual gain often supersedes consideration of national economic interest, let alone of the needs of animals.  Park rangers often yield to bribery from poachers.  Honest rangers are vulnerable to violence.

Among African Apes reminds us that great apes may soon become extinct in the wild.

–Debra J. White


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