Another article from the archives, written back on April 19th 2006. Two days earlier I’d sat up watching BBC4’s night of primate documentaries, and that where our story begins…
I’ve sat up and watched such things as ‘Natural History Night’ and ‘Dr Who Night’ before – usually they’re a con, the programmes fizzling out round about 10-30, but ‘Primates Night’ (err, if that’s what it was called) wasn’t so thrifty, keeping me in front of the TV until past 01-00 at least. And it was brilliant – the best assortment of TV programmes I’ve seen since, well, ever.
The first episode of the BBC series Cousins (presented by Charlotte Uhlenbroek) was shown: devoted to strepsirrhines, it included some great footage of aye-ayes, indris and sifakas. It’s good, but I’ve seen it before (and got the book [Dunbar & Barrett 2000], but not the t-shirt). Two other documentaries were featured: they are among the best I’ve ever seen, and I really must get hold of copies. The first was essentially ‘Frans de Waal’s guide to cultural primatology’; it was Brian Leith’s award-winning 2002 documentary The Cultured Ape. Fronted by de Waal, and featuring Jane Goodall and a load of other primatologists whose names I’ve forgotten, The Cultured Ape concentrates on the many discoveries – well known to primatologists but still, it seems, alien to people at large – which show that humans are but one end of a behavioural and psychological spectrum, rather than an island separated from the rest of the animal kingdom. Concepts traditionally regarded as uniquely human, such as the development, maintenance and transmission of cultures, complex communication, and the use of tools, are of course now well recorded for chimps and other primates (e.g., Whiten et al. 1999, Byrne 2002), and a good case can be made that chimps and other non-humans also display less quantifiable traits such as guilt, deception, aesthetic enjoyment and hatred. When gorillas in zoos have looked after children who have fallen into their enclosures, are they not displaying altruism? Reportedly, mortally wounded chimps display behaviour that – if witnessed in a human – would be interpreted as pleading for mercy.
On several occasions Goodall has explained the resistance she has received to her anthropomorphic interpretation of chimp behaviour after witnessing what seemed like jealousy, altruism, hatred and so on, and she explained how she learnt to couch these observations in a neutral language in order to get past reviewers. While I can understand that scientists want to avoid anthropomorphism, at the same time the conclusion seems unavoidable that individuals of at least some non-human species have personalities – surely everyone who’s kept pets has experienced this, as Goodall stated on the programme – and can experience many/most of the same things that we can. Yet it seems that traditional ethology denies such as possible for other species, and in saying these things – the chimp enjoyed looking at the waterfall, the chimp felt guilty when it was caught stealing – one would be accused of being un-scientific. Some ethologists even argue that we shouldn’t speak of non-human animals experiencing pain, given that we don’t know that they are really experiencing the same sensation that we associate with that word. I’ve read some of the literature on this area, but I’m no ethologist, and I have no stake in this area. I’m just interested.
The other documentary – Gorillas Revisited With David Attenborough – was altogether different, but just as excellent. One of the most memorable and talked-about scenes from any TV documentary ever is Sir David Attenborough’s 1978 encounter with wild Mountain gorillas Gorilla beringei in the Parc National des Volcans of Rwanda, broadcast in episode 12 (‘A life in the trees’) of the ground-breaking series Life on Earth, first broadcast in 1979. Gorillas Revisited covered the behind-the-scenes history of the 1978 filming, and what has happened to the Rwandan gorillas since. Attenborough was joined by Life on Earth producer John Sparks, cameraman Martin Saunders, and Ian Redmond, former assistant to Dian Fossey and now director of Global Great Ape Conservation. It was a fascinating story, tragically sad in places, uplifting in others.
Most people – even those without a special interest in zoology – know the story of Dian Fossey and the gorillas she studied while at the Karisoke Research Center thanks to the 1988 film (and/or Fossey’s 1983 book) Gorillas in the Mist (starring Sigourney Weaver). So it might come as no surprise to learn that the BBC team sought permission from Fossey to film ‘her’ gorillas, as they’d heard that this group had become habituated (= accustomed to humans). Somewhat surprisingly, Fossey gave enthusiastic approval, and urged Attenborough and colleagues to help promote the gorilla conservation work she, Redmond and her colleagues had initiated. At the time of the filming, Fossey was ill and still devastated by the recent killing of Digit, a young male gorilla who had been speared to death on New Year’s Eve 1977. After the filming, the BBC team were shot at and arrested by the Rwandan army, who were under the impression that the film was being made in order to show what a bad job Rwanda was doing for gorilla conservation. The army also thought that the BBC had been filming Digit’s body. They strip-searched Attenborough and confiscated the film cans, but the crew had cleverly swapped the labels on the cans, so the soldiers were confiscating unused film.
During the Life on Earth sequence one young gorilla clambers all over Attenborough and lies back on Attenborough’s chest. From its behaviour you might assume that this gorilla was a plucky, bold and confident individual. Well, he was named Pablo, and today he is an adult silverback. Another individual who was a youngster when Attenborough encountered him, Titus, is today a silverback who leads a group of 59 animals: the biggest recorded gorilla group ever. Many of the gorillas named by Fossey are doing well today, and have become parents and grandparents, and Fossey will always be remembered for initiating one of the first long-term generation-level studies of a wild mammal population.
If you’ve seen Gorillas in the Mist you’ll know that Fossey’s work was actually inspired by her meeting with a palaeontologist, Louis S. B. Leakey: a great example of a very fruitful crossover between palaeontology and field biology. Prior to Fossey’s work, Rosalie Osborn had studied Mountain gorillas. She also acknowledged Leakey’s involvement in setting up her research (Osborn 1963), and Leakey is also acknowledged by Goodall as initially suggesting that she might study the chimps she eventually became so acquainted with (van Lawick-Goodall 1971). It’s no secret that Leakey regarded women as better suited for observational fieldwork than men, apparently because he regarded women as more observant, and more patient.
Of course, things have not all been rosy in the Virungas. In 1968 half of the Parc National des Volcans was taken for pyrethrum cultivation (ironically, grown for use in Europe as an environmentally-friendly alternative to DDT) and there were plans, backed by the European Development Fund, to replace even more of the park with pyrethrum (Harcourt 1981). Poaching was a serious problem that Fossey and her successors have had to deal with (snares are set for hoofed mammals, but gorillas get caught and injured in them), and during the 1970s several gorillas were shot. Following the humanitarian crisis that engulfed the region following the civil war and resultant genocide of April-July 1994, rebels invaded the park and looted the homes and facilities, and murdered several of the people employed to keep the gorillas safe from poachers. Rebels also killed gorillas, and anti-poaching trackers, in 2001. And of course Fossey herself was murdered in 1985.
From a population that was thought to be around 600 in 1960, Rwandan Mountain gorillas had dwindled to an estimated low of 200 or so by 1980. Today, there are around 380 animals. That’s better than it was, but still pitifully low [UPDATE: much happened in 2007 and 2008; little of it is good news].
Refs – –
Byrne, R. W. 2002. Social and technical forms of primate intelligence. In de Waal, F. B. M. (ed) Tree of Origin. Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Mass. & London), pp. 145-172.
Dunbar, R. & Barrett, L. 2000. Cousins: Our Primate Relatives. BBC Worldwide, London.
Harcourt, A. H. 1981. Why save the mountain gorilla? Wildlife 23 (2), 22-26.
Osborn, R. M. 1963. Observations on the behaviour of the Mountain gorilla. Symposia of the Zoological Society of London 10, 29-37.
van Lawick-Goodall, J. 1971. In the Shadow of Man. William Collins Sons & Co, London.
Whiten, A., Goodall, J., McGrew, W. C., Nishida, T., Reynolds, V., Sugiyama, Y., Tutin, C. E. G., Wrangham, R. W. & Boesch, C. 1999. Cultures in chimpanzees. Nature 399, 682-685.