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The term "great apes" refers to humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans. We humans are more closely related genetically to our fellow great apes than to any other living things, and one of the most striking facts about this family group is that the activities of one species, the humans, are putting the survival of all the other types of great ape at risk. In this book, Paul Raffaele describes his often arduous journeys to various challenging destinations to visit these other great apes.
The word "adventure" in the title of this book is totally appropriate. Raffaele is an explorer/writer who tells gripping and occasionally disturbing stories about his explorations. (Some of his stories are not for the squeamish, although for armchair travelers who will never get to--or have to--visit these places themselves, the book could be a treat.) He describes his visits to remote mountains and rain forests crawling (literally) with dangers, including mambas, pythons, and leeches. He also faced dangers from his conspecifics in the war-ravaged, impoverished, and frequently unstable countries he visited in equatorial Africa. He seemed to find that the hardships of his travels were amply compensated by his encounters with various great apes, which he describes with grace and compassion.
Most of the great apes live in central Africa; the orangutans are native to Borneo and Sumatra. The book discusses several species of gorillas: the better-known mountain gorillas, studied by Dian Fossey; the lesser-known western lowland gorillas and the extremely rare Cross River gorillas; bonobos and chimpanzees, the most closely related to humans; and the orangutans of Borneo. Most of these are described in their native habitat, although Raffaele also weaves in stories of zoos and sanctuaries in other parts of the world as well as the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, where the well-known male bonobo Kanzi has learned to communicate with humans using lexigrams.
The stories of the animals themselves are the heart of the book. Raffaele describes each species' distinctive habitat and diet, and the mating behavior and social life that have evolved in response to the opportunities and dangers of the habitat. He seasons these facts generously with often moving stories about his encounters with these magnificent animals. The book is a good introduction to the ways of the great apes in all their variety: the quiet, solitary orangutans, who vocalize less than other apes and often use eye contact to communicate; gorilla families with their various dynamics, including silverback fathers who are powerfully threatening to intruders but gentle with their young; the power-obsessed chimps; the more intelligent and generally mellow bonobos.
All the great apes except humans are threatened, and the pressures on them are sadly familiar by halfway through the book: habitat destruction (caused by human population growth and commercial exploitation of timber, charcoal, or palm oil), hunting, and disease. Corrupt governments in many of the African countries where the great apes live and the instability of recent civil war make it difficult for anyone to mount a concerted effort to protect the apes from poachers and other threats. Raffaele encounters many people who have generously given of their money and time to work heroically to protect these animals. He reports that many of the organizations dedicated to saving the great apes are American, European, or international; although he doesn't elaborate, the tension created by the great disparities in wealth between many African countries and the West, and the lingering effects of the continent's colonial history, seem clear.
The book is the fruit of several separate journeys, and inevitably it reads somewhat episodically. Some information is repeated, and the book could have used one last careful edit to remove such duplication. However, several fascinating threads help tie the episodes together. One of these is the similarities and differences between us and each of the great apes. All of the great apes have been seen to use tools, and all are capable of complex communication with each other and with us, compelling facts that can challenge our notions of what is uniquely human. Our resemblance to the other great apes is strong enough that their behavior can look very familiar, although it's tempting to assume too much similarity. Sometimes Raffaele anthropomorphizes a bit too much for my comfort: forest animals are said to go to salt licks because they "instinctively know" that the minerals there are good for their health, for example.
Another unifying thread is the discussions regarding how we should live with the great apes. The two poles of this discussion are indicated by a couple of conversations that occur early in the book. He quotes a Rwandan Tutsi woman who said that the gorillas, who are much less important than people, take up valuable farmland, but that if Westerners were willing to spend great sums of money for time with the gorillas, it was worth protecting them. A few pages later, he quotes an African park ranger who has spent 20 years protecting the mountain gorillas and who says that he stays in his dangerous job because the gorillas are our brothers and sisters. The book describes several conversations on the pros and cons of sanctuaries where orphaned or otherwise abandoned apes are cared for. These do not generally preserve wild populations (the orphaned animals often cannot be released successfully into the wild) but is desirable for other reasons, not least of which is the compassionate need to rescue young animals orphaned by human violence.
The most thought-provoking and unsettling theme is the moral and practical nature of our relationship to other creatures. As he visits one struggling African country after another, describing the corruption, human rights violations, and poverty, Raffaele says more than once that if a country cannot even provide stability and safety for its human population, what hope is there that the great apes will be protected? He also quotes Carole Noon, the director of Save the Chimps in Florida, where chimps who have been used in NASA-related and medical experiments can spend the last years of their lives in relative comfort. In response to critics who say that starving children should be fed before the apes are cared for, Noon points out that it's not an either-or situation and notes that their budget for the chimps is much less than the money Americans spend on various recreational activities.
The book closes with a brief chapter called "A Call to Arms" in which Raffaele summarizes the state of each of the ape species he visited (overall disheartening but with several small signs of progress) and urges readers to take action to avoid the lasting shame of letting our nearest kin on the planet, our fellow apes, die out. Throughout the book, he names various sanctuaries and organizations, and it would have been handy to have a brief appendix listing all of them in one place, perhaps with URLs or contact information. Given the complexities of the situations he describes, though, perhaps his lack of specific guidance is intentional; you can come to your own conclusions about the work people are doing and decide what, if anything, you might like to support. His message about the urgent need for action, and his eloquent plea not to let these animals be lost forever owing to human ignorance, apathy, or greed, are likely to resonate for readers who have followed him through his travels and vicariously met so many of the great apes.
© 2010 Mary Hrovat
Mary Hrovat is a freelance science writer and editor; she has written about science and information technology for Indiana University's Research & Creative Activity magazine, Indiana Alumni Magazine, and Discovery Online. She also posts news items, book reviews, and articles on the Thinking Meat Project [http://www.thinkingmeat.com/], which deals with brain science, psychology, human evolution, and related topics