March 2010

Barbara J. King

features

The Great Apes of Africa and Asia, and Paul Raffaele's Inflamed Text

When one of our numerous cats suffers an allergic inflammation of some sort, our veterinarian often shoots the puss with a calming drug. She’ll say, “Let’s just settle this down now,” and in goes the relieving needle. 

While reading Paul Raffaele’s Among the Great Apes: Adventures on the Trail of our Closest Relatives, I wished to borrow the vet’s syringe. As Raffaele travels through Africa and Asia to visit chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, and the scientists who study them, he hypes the dark and the danger so much that the text becomes inflamed. If such a thing existed as an injectable book-balm, I’d use it on this volume.  

Raffaele is an Australian reporter with a penchant for surviving the world’s hot spots (not always without injury). Among the Great Apes is, he claims, “the most comprehensive eye-witness report ever of the great apes in their natural habitats.” On this score, he’s right. He visits places little-known but key to understanding the behavior and impending extinction of the great apes, including the highlands of the Cameroon-Nigeria border where the rare Cross River gorillas live.  

Raffaele isn’t shy about detailing the challenges of this type of foreign reporting. As a result, we get Raffaele panting and sweating on steep mountain trails; Raffaele stilling himself as a huge silverback gorilla roars over his head; and Raffaele suffering with the sweat bees and toxic snakes that cause tropical angst. Sometimes his alpha-male swagger wears thin. Why, knowing what he knows about gorilla male aggression, does Raffaele at one point choose, in “an act of deliberate defiance,” to stare straight into the eyes of a silverback?    

Still, this sort of posturing is mostly OK. A book that boasts “adventure” in its subtitle is likely to involve some swashbuckle, and Raffaele’s love for and dedication to apes buys him some leeway in this regard. But look at how Raffaele writes about places and people, and what his choices mean for his readers’ trust.  

According to Raffaele, the Democratic Republic of Congo (the DRC) is “a sprawling hell on earth.” Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), is a “tragic and frightened city, its residents cowed by decades of violent coups d’etat,” and the CAR itself is “close to being the most miserable and poorest place on Earth.” In the city of Doula in Cameroon, there’s “a brooding sense of tension in the air.” In the Cross River area, the Bantus oppress the “pygmies” who “do not know how to fight back.”  

About Africa, I’m not overly romantic. For over two years, I lived and worked in two African countries; my eyes were opened to the poverty and the suffering, and to the massive government corruption that Raffaele notes. It’s sensible for Raffaele to describe and decry these patterns. But my eyes also saw the people’s tenacity and creativity. What I don’t like is Raffaele’s simplistic homogenizing of places and peoples. A whole country is hell? Or in misery? An entire city is tense and cowed? No “pygmy” knows how to resist oppression? This broadbrush treatment is the worst kind of essentialism.  

Readers, if you’re irritated by the inflamed prose, you can simply settle the text yourselves. Refuse to be drawn in by the dark-continent, hell-on-earth, helpless-people passages.   

While you’re at it, please excise altogether two tasteless pages. In the DRC, Raffaele visits a bakery. The girl who waits on him, her first name supplied in the text, is “barely 16” with a “scintillating smile.” But the description doesn’t stop there; we’re told about her “spectacular breasts” and her “breast-waggling.” Question for Raffaele, and his editors at Harper: What could you have been thinking, to include those sentences? They demean a young girl, and are insensitive to the reality that in some parts of the DRC at present, women are raped at ferocious rates.    

Raffaele muddles the facts on occasion. At one point he notes that chimpanzees and humans split apart 4 million years ago, but at another point makes it 8 million; a better estimate is 6 million. In one place, the number of bonobos alive today is listed as 25,000, whereas in another, it’s fewer than 20,000. Kanzi the bonobo is said to communicate with an electronic board called a lexigram, when in fact “lexigram” refers to a symbol on the board. Repeatedly described as solitary, orangutans sometimes do congregate when food allows. And to say that male gorillas have “wives” is just that bit too anthropocentric for accuracy.  

Am I recommending against reading the book? No. For one thing, while the chimpanzee section relies too heavily on well-known tales from Jane Goodall’s research in Tanzania, other sections feature fascinating new science. At Kibale, Uganda, a male chimpanzee guards a female who is not in estrus (or heat), apparently trying to ensure that she will be his consort when she is able to conceive, a state signaled by a large pink swelling on her bottom. If this interpretation turns out to be correct, it’s something quite new in the world of chimpanzee sexuality. At the same site, primatologist Richard Wrangham has discovered an early sex difference in the use of sticks: females cradle them like dolls, males turn them into weapons.  

And then there are the Cross River gorillas on the Cameroon-Nigeria border. Down to a mere 300 in number, these apes are the closest of any to extinction. No journalist before Raffaele had journeyed to their remote region. In fact, no more than seven “outsiders” had, at the time of Raffaele’s visit, seen these gorillas, in part because primatologists refuse to habituate them. The more these apes lose their fear of humans, the more vulnerable they become. 

For another thing, Raffaele showcases some genuine heroes, like the American primatologist David Greer. Greer worked in Rwanda and the CAR, organizing and taking part in anti-poacher patrols in gorilla territory. One year, Greer and his workers destroyed more than 70,000 snares meant to cause prolonged painful deaths of forest animals. Greer, now coordinator of the World Wildlife Fund for the African Great Apes Programme, has made a genuine difference for apes at serious personal risk; the sections about him are gripping. 

Raffaele effectively outlines the multiple risks faced by the apes themselves in 2010 -- for gorillas, ebola; for orangutans, palm-oil cultivation that is destroying their habitat; for all the great apes, poaching, because ape meat is valued on the open market. Raffaele visits sanctuaries and zoos and assesses them critically. I cannot agree with his flat statement that “even the best zoos treat their captives in a dreadful way.” Yet there’s no denying that the plight of our closest living relatives in most every living situation known to them is dire. For that reason, I hope this book is read, discussed, and shared widely.  

And I hope it pries loose financial support. The WWF African Great Apes Programme, and initiatives of the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Jane Goodall Institute, desperately need our dollars (and all other currencies) to help the apes. 

Barbara J. King’s new book is Being With Animals: Why We are Obsessed with the Furry, Scaly, Feathered Creatures Who Populate Our World.