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Eating Apes

Dale Peterson (Author), Janet K. Museveni (Foreword), Karl Ammann (Photographer)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 329 pages
ISBN: 9780520243323
September 2004
$28.95, £24.00
Other Formats Available:
Eating Apes is an eloquent book about a disturbing secret: the looming extinction of humanity's closest relatives, the African great apes—chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas. Dale Peterson's impassioned exposé details how, with the unprecedented opening of African forests by European and Asian logging companies, the traditional consumption of wild animal meat in Central Africa has suddenly exploded in scope and impact, moving from what was recently a subsistence activity to an enormous and completely unsustainable commercial enterprise. Although the three African great apes account for only about one percent of the commercial bush meat trade, today's rate of slaughter could bring about their extinction in the next few decades. Supported by compelling color photographs by award-winning photographer Karl Ammann, Eating Apes documents the when, where, how, and why of this rapidly accelerating disaster.

Eating Apes persuasively argues that the American conservation media have failed to report the ongoing collapse of the ape population. In bringing the facts of this crisis and these impending extinctions into a single, accessible book, Peterson takes us one step closer to averting one of the most disturbing threats to our closest relatives.
Dale Peterson is the author of Storyville, USA (1999), Chimpanzee Travels: On and Off the Road in Africa (1995), and The Deluge and the Ark: A Journey into Primate Worlds (1989). He is the editor of Beyond Innocence: Jane Goodall's Later Life in Letters (2001) and Africa in My Blood: Jane Goodall's Early Life in Letters (2000). He is the coauthor of Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (1996) and Visions of Caliban: On Chimpanzees and People (1993). Karl Ammann is an award-winning photographer who has photographed wildlife throughout Africa and Southeast Asia.
“A fascinating book. . . . Eating Apes educates us on an important topic neglected by the American conservation media and offers practical advice on what we can do to help stop it.”—Lisa Gallo Animal Guardian
“Buy the book, read it, weep.” “Peterson is a remarkably graceful writer, considering his gruesome topic, and readers should be thankful.”—Clay Evans Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
“The issues [in Eating Apes] are not only more complex; they are also both fascinating and... deeply disquieting. It is a tribute to this book, and no doubt a long-overdue reward to the man who inspired it, that it explains them so well.”—Bbc Wildlife Magazine
“Peterson is a remarkably graceful writer, considering his inherentlygruesome topic, and readers should be thankful, for the only real way to grasp the enormity of the problem is to read this elegant book in its entirety.”—Clay Evans Boulder Daily Camera
“Eating Apes is informative, clear, and precise on the nature and origins of the crisis... and if you never read a word of it, then at least stop to look at Karl Ammann’s photographs in the middle to see why this crisis should no longer be ignored.”—International Herald Tribune
“Will shock even readers who felt they were will-informed on the plight of many wild animals.” “An interesting book, strange, shocking, unsettling and ambivalent.”—Eileen Battersby Irish Times
“An important new book.”—Monkey Tales
"Peterson provides a personal view of the bushmeat trade that is illuminating and eminently readable. . . . It is an absorbing mixture of biography, biology, anthropology, politics, economics and ethics. It is also thoroughly researched (extensive notes are provided for each chapter). Fittingly, it is illustrated by a selection of Ammann's most famous photographs."—Nature
“A passionate, enthralling book.”—Maggie McDonald New Scientist
“Dale Peterson’s ugly, important new book is . . . an examination of the slaughter, for food, or humanity’s four closest primate relatives. . . . [Peterson] is an earnest advocate and careful researcher.”—David Quammen New York Times Book Review
“Here the power of the pen is exponentially amplified by the power of the picture.”—Outdoor Photographer
“Peterson is never shrill, and rarely does his tone become emotional; he does not overwhelm readers with evidence, yet his evidence is extensive. Ammann’s chilling photographs... contribute vastly to this equally distressing and thought-provoking survey.”—Publishers Weekly
“Opens onto a broader indictment of institutional ‘feel-good conservation,’ which can bear any extinction save that of its donor base. But Peterson doesn’t stop at despair; he outlines reasonable measures governments and individuals can take, arguing that since apes constitute just 1 percent of Africa's fast-diminishing meat larder, they, at least, can be saved. All you need is the will, the money, and the unvarnished truth. One out of three is a start."—Eric Scigliano Seattle Weekly
“This book, with its critical assessment of the wildlife trade, comes not a moment too soon and carries an important message.“—The Economist
“Peterson deconstructs the complexity of the Central and West African bushmeat trade and its role in the destruction of the great apes. Eating Apes is by far his best work to date: It has breadth and depth; the writing is crisp, clear and engaging.”—The Globe And Mail
“Eating Apes is a serious study. As unpleasant as it is, this is a story that must be told, and more important, a story that must be known.”—The Times
"A beautifully written book about an ongoing tragedy of global significance. Dale Peterson's account sweeps across broad issues of conservation and animal welfare that are linked to human welfare and should be the concern of everyone everywhere."—Edward O. Wilson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature

"I applaud Dale Peterson for taking on this challenging subject with courage and honesty. In identifying development, in the form of logging, as the primary threat to biodiversity in Africa, this book gets it right, and I recommend it most highly to anyone who wishes to be let in on the secrets of Africa's biggest conservation crisis."—Marcellin Agnagna, former Director of Wildlife and National Parks for the Republic of Congo

"The African Great Apes, our closest living relatives, are in imminent danger of extinction. Eating Apes, in beautiful prose, exposes the enormity and complexity of this conservation crisis. It took great courage to gather and present this information. You must read this book."—Jane Goodall

"It is with joy that I welcome this beautifully written and persuasive book that I pray should be read not only in America and Europe but also in Africa. We are facing an environmental crisis because of those few political and corporate opportunists who take advantage of weak political institutions lacking legitimacy for the indigenous peoples of Central and West Africa."—Ajume H. Wingo, Professor of Political Philosophy, University of Massachusetts, Boston, and Research Fellow of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute, Harvard University

"What is happening to our nearest relatives, the African great apes, in their last remaining strongholds, is appalling, yet most of us know nothing about it. We should all thank Dale Peterson and Karl Ammann for this powerful book, which should end that ignorance. Everyone should read it, and then insist that their governments act before it is too late."—Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation and Ethics

"In Eating Apes, Dale Peterson becomes the Hercule Poirot of the tropics. When he heard that in the equatorial forests apes have become meat for loggers, Peterson set off to part the curtain on a world of jungle tragedy where cultures collide, where innocence is eroded by money and power, and where conservation all too often collapses into politics. What he found is shocking, but his detective work means that ignorance is no longer an excuse for the world's inaction. Will the apes survive? Eating Apes is a brilliant, intimate guide to the challenge--and a launching-pad for the rescue mission."—Richard Wrangham, author of Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence

"Peterson and Amman's book is a bold and brave j'accuse of the logging and conservation organizations who are spearheading this latest attack. You must read this book. And then you must follow the advice of Peterson and Amman as to what you can do to help stop it."—Roger Fouts, author of Next of Kin

On Feel-Good

Karl Ammann

A few years ago, I was invited to visit the home of a Swiss compatriot, an elderly lady by the name of Martha ("Poppi) Thomas living the life of the privileged in upstate New York. I knew that she was a trustee and a serious financial supporter of the Bronx Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Society, and after lunch I showed her a copy of the Slaughter of the Apes brochure that included some of my photos and a little explanatory text.

Her reaction was more than shock. Her conservation world had just crumbled. Since she felt very strongly about the environment and animal welfare, she had been making major donations to conservation organizations essentially as her way of getting a good night's sleep. After leafing through the pamphlet together, we left the luncheon table and all the other guests before dessert. Her chauffeur drove us a few miles to the home of Howdy Phipps, who was then the big boss of WCS. We motored through a beautiful estate right up to the main entrance of a mansion. Poppi informed the servants that we wanted to see Mr. Phipps immediately. She was informed that Mr. and Mrs. Phipps had retired for their Sunday afternoon rest. She made it clear that she did not care. We waited in the hall until the awakened couple descended the wide staircase. We all went to the living room but never got to sit down. Poppi shoved the pamphlet under Mr. Phipps's nose, wanting an immediate response, wanting to know if indeed this sort of thing was still going on in Africa. Of course, I felt like sinking away into the parquet floor.

As the CEO of WCS, Howdy Phipps would have a good idea what was going on in the field, and certainly his Africa experts at the Bronx office and the people in the field in Africa would have been able to tell him that things were not under control—but that is not the message on which money is raised from supporters like Poppi. Poppi, of course, received the WCS annual report with the largely green world map in the center, but she would not have been privy to what I had begun to see as the organization's policy of not publicizing the bushmeat problem in order to maintain "good relations with the African government[s] and indigenous people so that the Society's conservation projects will be permitted to continue." In this case, WCS maintained these "good relations," but on the back of the very wildlife it was meant to protect.

What I found surprising was that somebody like Poppi, a very alert and compassionate lady, believed in all the beautiful "world in order" images and documentaries that the Discovery and National Geographic channels were feeding the American and world public almost 24 hours a day. She also believed the WCS annual report, with its smiles and promises and that largely green world map. She was genuinely convinced that her donations and those of her friends were buying the gorillas and chimps of Africa a safe world.

This gave me the first inkling of the power of selling "feel-good conservation"—on the back of small and ultimately ineffectual "Band-Aid projects"—and the extent to which the conservation establishment had come to depend on it. Individual donors and, I am sure, even the big institutional ones badly want to believe that their money pays for a better world. In the case of WCS, where the top seven executives earned a total of more than U.S. $2.6 million in the year 2000, keeping the cash flow going has to be priority number one. But does all that promotion of good feelings, and all that money, finally earn environmental organizations the full public trust? A recent survey conducted in the United States established that the most highly trusted organizations are religious charities (favored by 47 percent), followed by animal welfare organizations (with 37 percent), while the environmental groups came out were second to last (trusted most fully by 19 percent—which probably included Poppi). So it would appear that overall the public is deep down largely aware that most battles and the war are being lost. Sending a check to the conservation establishment to save some tigers or whales represents the kind of convenient excuse that allows for a good night's sleep.

My main motivation in photographically illustrating what I saw out in the forests of Central Africa was to present the bushmeat threat to Central African wildlife to a wider audience, to try to force them to take a position and stop hiding behind their annual checks to the conservation establishment. Passing on my concerns made me feel better. With the bushmeat issue now well in the public domain, however, there is not much more my camera can achieve. I had assumed in the early years that once the story was out there, I could go back to "world in order" photography, the beautiful images of apes and other wildlife that are the bread-and-butter business of all wildlife photographers. I also assumed that once people understood that the bushmeat commerce had indeed reached a crisis level, our politicians and the conservation community would gear up and take care of things.

The last few years have convinced me that this is not happening. Although some gearing up has taken place, there has been no rethinking or new approaches, no analysis on why the crisis was not dealt with earlier, no clear learning from the disappearance of West Africa's forests and wildlife. Well, now the projects are on the drawing boards, and bushmeat fits in well with selling more feel-good conservation. Fund-raising has started in earnest.

This is where I believe the matter stands today, and, in some ways, I feel I am back to square one. My instincts again tell me a portion of the public out there would like to hear the full story, to decide for themselves what should be classified as window dressing and what might be genuine progress. Maybe consulting the court of public opinion was easier with pictures than it will be using the written word. This time the question is not: Do you have a problem with a gorilla in a cooking pot? But: Do you believe the conservation establishment is on track as far as mitigating this and a range of other conservation issues—not just in Africa but many other parts of the developing world?


I consider the avalanche of partnership agreements with multinational commercial logging companies as a very representative example of what is going on. I ask for your indulgence while I once more summarize how it all started and where it seems to be going. To me it is a perfect example of selling feel-good conservation and avoiding the harsh realities, even when knowing the truth is an absolute prerequisite for dealing with the root cause of the problem.

We have learned that the starting gun was fired with the signing of the 1995 Protocole d'accord, which began a formal relationship between the conservation group the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the logger Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB). I am not sure whether this first formal relationship was a small mistake, a big one, or a stupid one. What I do know is that it was not based on the board of WCS sitting down and discussing it as a policy decision with specific, agreed-upon negotiating strategies and parameters. This was a tactical error with huge consequences: a divided conservation community and loggers calling the shots as to who is allowed to clean up after them.

Ironically, when the Protocole was signed, the bushmeat issue was hitting at least some logging firms hard in the public relations department. The tropical logging industry was, in the words of the respected expert commentator Glen Barry, "on the ropes and near collapse. Because of massive advocacy campaigns and boycotts organized by hundreds of modest forest conservation groups, consumers of export logs had begun to realize that their purchase directly destroyed ancient old-growth forests. Demand was slowing and along with global economic troubles, many predatory loggers were pushed out of business." In other words, at that time, the mid-1990s, conservationists were in a unique negotiating position to get some real concessions from CIB, and possibly the whole tropical timber industry. It was a time when a wildlife management code of conduct could have been added to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification system, when loggers could have been given ultimatums to accept their responsibilities under the FSC system, when they could have been forced to recruit wildlife-management experts and to pay for setting up control systems as well as auditing by qualified third-party experts. At the time, environmentalists would have been able to keep up the pressure to push for tighter and more extensive boycotts.

Instead there was the Protocole d'accord: 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. National laws, as far as the closed hunting season, cable snares, and so on, went out the window. Nobody was designated to monitor and enforce anything that was agreed on. 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. To quote from the report of a November 2000 conference in Gabon titled "Reducing the Impact of Timber Exploitation on Wildlife in Central Africa": "loggers need technical help as they have no expertise in wildlife management," but at the same time they "need to remain competitive economically." What does that mean? It means that by the year 2000, conservationists were asking the donor community, the taxpayers in the West, to pay for cleaning up after the loggers. And what were the loggers willing to chip in? Well, perhaps the collaboration between WCS and CIB gives us an idea how far they would go. CIB management agreed to contribute "in kind" (that is, not actual money, but an estimated value for goods and services) $75,000 for a two-year period in wildlife management in a concession where the total project cost $640,000. A little old lady on a U.S. $1,000 monthly pension, sending in a $50 check, would actually contribute proportionally more than CIB was giving. In CIB's subsequent cooperation agreement with the government and WCS, enforcement for company employees did become part of the deal. Company rules allow for unspecific fines for infringing on hunting laws or "unjustified" transporting of hunters and their products; three days' suspension from work for ignoring barriers; and eight days' suspension for hunting in protected areas. Such small penalties are hardly a deterrent, plus in many instances they contradict the laws of the land. How painful can a three- or even an eight-day suspension be, especially considering the wages paid by CIB? In addition, CIB has reached a point where it feels completely absolved of any responsibility for the bushmeat problem. The problem now belongs to someone else (in this case, WCS and its supporting donors). As Hinrich Stoll, president of CIB, recently phrased the concept in a letter he wrote to an auditing organization:

(a) CIB cannot and does not want to interfere with the obligations of other parties [in the collaboration],

(b) data collection for fauna is WCS's responsibility,

(c) the Congolese government and WCS . . . have to try to settle conflicts, establish understanding of and collaboration also with the pygmies,

(d) CIB has not implemented a policy of protected areas for the Fauna. Within the collaboration of the stakeholders, this is under the responsibility of WCS (Fauna), which has implemented a policy of protected areas.

So conservationists and their supporters will have to take care of the problem. In the meanwhile, the logger continues to bask in the warm glow generated by this happy relationship. It seems that hardly a letter leaves Mr. Stoll's office these days without some reference to that close collaboration with the world's oldest conservation organization. However, it doesn't stop there. Now the close collaboration also means that CIB no longer has to worry about the old-fashioned sort of green certification, via the FSC. To quote from the same letter:

By no means will CIB give up parts of this protocol and change unilateral responsibilities of each stakeholder. Those FSC criteria and indicators for certification, which are theoretical, cannot be fulfilled by anybody. There are only two solutions: Either CIB and all the other companies working in West and Central Africa give up their aim at certification according to FSC's present conditions; or FSC accepts the experience of the protocol partners. Their agreement of collaboration has become an acknowledged pilot project for IUCN, WCS and the World Bank. We do not doubt that it is considered also as such by anybody else who knows what has to be done in Central Africa.

There cannot be many cases of negotiating on environmental issues where one party has demanded and gotten more in return for giving less. It would appear that this pattern was then repeated with the handing over of the Goualogo Triangle and the high-profile press conference WCS mounted for its partners, CIB and the Congolese government. Having looked at a satellite map of the area in question, I have concluded that most likely this area would never have been logged at all. Most of it is swamp, and to build a bridge or bring in a ferry to cross the rivers would not be viable. A confidential subscription newsletter recently unveiled another possible motive behind this initiative. The story describes the logging industry's fear that timber might go the way of West African diamonds: with conservation NGOs calling for a boycott of "blood timber" (as they did on "blood diamonds"). It goes on to say that CIB was the first to counteract this threat by announcing at a press conference at the Bronx Zoo that it would not exploit the 260-square-kilometer Goualogo Triangle. WCS celebrated the news as the greatest success for conservation in Central Africa ever, and Dr. Stoll and the Congolese Minister of Forestry left New York after being celebrated as environmental heroes.

I started wondering how much more of this kind of heroism we might see in the future, when government officials and logging company executives start searching the Congo Basin for biodiversity-rich areas that can not be logged economically, then allocate them as logging concessions only to return them for conservation and the worldwide acclaim that seems to come with it.

In this context it is interesting to summarize some other recent fund-raising developments. Dale Peterson has pointed out how after the December 2001 Brussells Conference organized by WWF, the European Union coughed up some $2 million to help collaboration efforts and then added another $3 million for good measure. (As of 2002, the CIB/WCS project cost has increased to $1 million per year, and that was for 500,000 hectares or less than half of a single logging concession.) By European standards, that was surely a cheap price to buy its logging industry some credibility. As we have seen, the World Bank, which also has an interest to keep the logging of the remaining rain forests going, contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the WCS/CIB deal. The Jane Goodall Institute, in turn, had been shopping around a proposal for $6 million to once again help CIB clean up the mess at the bushmeat front. The problem, of course, was that WCS was already firmly established and did not want to share its feel-good success and the associated fund-raising potential, and so a turf war broke out.

I can imagine Dr. Stoll and his logging colleagues breaking out the champagne and celebrating a new area where conservation organizations fight each other to be allowed to clean up after logging.


In October 2001, the ATIBT (Association Technique International des Bois Tropicaux) met in Rome for its fiftieth anniversary celebration. Jane Goodall agreed to address the gathering. When I questioned the appropriateness of helping logging celebrate fifty years of unsustainable practices, I was informed by the director for the Africa programs of the Jane Goodall Institute that Dr. Goodall "would shame the loggers into reforming." To address the meeting, she had to walk through Greenpeace protesters with mock chain saws and illustrated samples of Africa's megafauna.

My suggestion to Dr. Goodall had been to ask for specific commitments from the European loggers operating in Africa, who were at the very moment bragging about an annual turnover of $800 million. I suggested that if she came back with an annual commitment of one percent ($8 million) for wildlife management, I would drop all my objections and join the celebrations. She came back with no commitment. In an interview with a Canadian magazine, she made the following point: "Considering the logging companies maintain a heavy presence in the Congo Basin, and are not going away any time soon, it only makes sense to include them in a solution partnership. Some might contest this approach, preferring to shame the industry into better environmental practices, but it is better to change through praise than criticism."

So who are we going to praise? CIB and the empire it belongs to? Besides the unaudited success stories coming out of CIB's Congo, Greenpeace has exposed Inter Continental Hardwoods, a new company formed as part of tt Timber International, which is part of Stoll's Hinrich Feldmeer Group, as importing Brazilian mahogany from export Peracchi and Tapajos Timber Company, two of the companies known to be involved in the illegal trade (of mahogany) in Brazil. The same tt Timber International was also exposed as buying timber from a company in Liberia, which was accused in a U.N. report of being involved in arms dealing. Or should the praise go to the logging companies in Cameroon that WWF is in bed with? As we have learned already, they were involved and probably still are in a range of illegal activities, including falsifying certificates to overcome a treaty (CITES) meant to protect endangered species from international trade. Nothing seems to have been learned from the experience with Prince Philip when he was sent out to praise an Italian logging firm that was later classified as being one of the worst offenders in the country.

What about some praise instead for Greenpeace, whose report on illegal mahogany exports led the Brazilian government "to freeze all mahogany logging, transport and export operations." Or possibly to Global Witness, which got the Cambodian prime minister to announce the suspension of all logging operations based on exposure of illegal activities. As Glen Barry declares: "Global Witness work in Cambodia provides a model for how forest conservationists can work within the system without having conserved forests usurped and weakened by endless dialogue and a reform process that ultimately legitimizes and subsidizes continued forest devastations."

I am often accused of not being a team player, for tearing down whatever limited success stories exist. I respond by pointing out that I do not feel like playing on a team that has as its target to lose by one less goal, basket, or wicket. I am convinced that this minimalistic approach has become part of the problem. I am also convinced it has a lot to do with the public perception of the conservation industry that retains the trust, as mentioned earlier, of only 19 percent of the American public.

As Greenpeace and Global Witness have shown, it is possible to win battles by standing up to big business. Other options are clearly out there. Maybe if we were all on the same page there actually might be a chance to win the war—or the game. However, to get to this point might require some soul searching by some of the establishment players, requiring an analysis of their track records, establishing what went wrong and when and where they lost the trust of the public and were forced to sell out to the industry and the big institutional donors to meet the budget expectations set out by their highly paid executives. This might be the biggest problem of all, admitting that we are not winning the war, that the quiet diplomatic approach is not working and the public at large senses it, and that the feel-good conservation approach has become a liability.

But what are the alternatives, if any? Richard Leakey included in a recent speech most of the components of the approach I am imagining:

Kenya cannot eradicate polio without international money, we cannot deal with the problems of the children without international funding, we cannot deal with education without international support. We can take millions of dollars from the World Health Organization to eradicate polio and other diseases. So why can we not find the support for the cost of conservation measures in Kenya and other African countries using international funds? Why not set up a decade of support for wildlife management programs to pay the project implementation costs—not for theories and experts but for the guys on the ground? Why not structure it in such a way that if we do not deliver in terms of audit we would not get any more money, and not only would we not get any more money for wildlife, but we would not get any more money for polio, roads and other things?

We cannot expect African governments to turn wildlife or environmental issues into priority items. If we want to get their attention we have to come with the kind of carrots that allow us to compete with loggers, the oil industry, et cetera. But before anybody will agree to finance a decade for African wildlife or a more general Marshall Plan, it might be necessary to get back the faith of the supporting public and donor institutions. The past approach has not worked. That is clear. So how about proposing a new big-picture approach, based on some mea culpas and agreeing to some new, more businesslike conditions as far as accounting for conservation money?

Auditing in this context has to be priority number one. I am not talking about the auditing of money spent against proper receipts but rather about auditing results. This would mean designing projects with measurable results in mind. Preparing budget proposals with the auditing component built in. Offering to make these audits available to the public. And, of course, there must be an internationally recognized body to carry out such audits.

When Richard Leakey talks about not spending money on the "experts," I assume he is referring to the highly paid expatriate conservation "experts." I would go somewhat beyond that and say: stop spending money on outside theorists and professional biologists. Put more reliance on practical people who are already there, on the ground, supporting people who like people and who consider the studying of wildlife and habitat as a secondary priority. Shifting to a more multidisciplinary basis for recruiting field personnel might represent a new angle. Let me give a concrete example of what I am talking about. A few months ago I received a report about a professional ape researcher returning to her study site in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This event was described as "the first return of an outsider (Western researcher) to a long term field site within the bonobo range of occupation" and therefore "a real victory for conservation." The "return," however, must have cost thousands of dollars of donor money; the stay on the ground seems to have been limited to a few hours; and, naturally, the professional researcher was unable to reach any conclusion as to the status of the bonobo after three years of war in the area. The report also referred to a letter having been smuggled in to the area Catholic missionary who has stayed on through the entire war with his motorcycle being the only mechanized transport in the zone.

To me, therefore, the report describes anything but "a real victory for conservation." And at the same time, it points out the stark differences in commitment between professional researchers playing ecomissionary as compared to real missionaries who are not in a position to "play." To the foreign researchers and conservationists, the D.R. Congo is a playground to visit when they feel like it. To the real missionaries it is, simply, the battlefield they labor in. To be sure, I am generalizing from this one case and therefore being unfair to many. There certainly are research projects that have an impact on conservation. Nevertheless, I believe we have yet to consider other ways to find the best conservation professionals.

I am spending several months a year in some of the rebel-held areas of the Congo and have done so for several years. I have met dozens of Western missionaries who stayed on while, as the war heated up, all the biologists and field workers fled. I work closely with an eighty-five—year old Norwegian missionary lady who almost single-handedly keeps a basic education and health care system going in a sizable township in northern Congo. I have asked an Italian missionary what he hoped to achieve under the present conditions. His answer was very little as far as the spiritual or even physical health of the flock; however, his presence allowed the people to live in their homes. He felt that if he was not there, the villagers would have fled to the forests. His presence protected them from looting and raping by the rebel army and associated officials. (The Catholic mission in Congo has a communication network that has regularly broken stories of massacres and other human right issues in the international media.) So, having met all these very dedicated missionaries who spend year after year in the same areas that professional biologists, by and large, seem to be avoiding, I have begun to wonder why we cannot have ecomissionaries working to help protect the bonobos, for example, in the way that missionaries look after their people. Why is bonobo conservation mostly being discussed in five-star hotels in the West? If we cannot find conservationists with the same dedication as the faith-based missionaries, why not turn the faith-based missionaries into dedicated conservationists? I am convinced this is a very viable option if we could find the resources to take care of some of the people on the ground.

Next there is the concept of donor conditionality. Richard Leakey's point is that the misspending of donor funding on a conservation project should result in other donor financing being suspended as well. This sort of conditionality clause could be a major stick; if joined with bigger carrots, it ought to get conservationists a seat at the negotiating table with the top Central African leadership. I keep expressing my doubts that any of the grassroots or what I call Band-Aid projects will go anywhere, starting as they do from the bottom up, until we can create political pressure from the top down. How do you ask a hunter not to pull the trigger on a gorilla when he knows that gorilla meat is the governor's favorite food? Most of the present efforts to get the leadership of the range countries on board center around inviting midlevel bureaucrats to conferences. The fact is that midlevel bureaucrats in Central Africa, even with the best of intentions, have no hope to affect national policy or lead cultural change. So my view is that if we do not get to the top leadership we will go nowhere. The problem, of course, is how to get to the top leaders, the real decision makers. The new cliché seems to be "recipient-driven" projects. In spite of the fact that some of these countries are receiving up to 60 percent of their national budget in donor support, it is still considered politically incorrect for the donors to say that the environment and wildlife should be a priority. Major donor sources—the European Union, for instance—still seem to have a hard time making the link between an unsustainable exploitation of resources in the present and humanitarian problems a little farther down the road.

Richard Leakey talked about Kenya not being able to wipe out polio without international help. When it comes to the bushmeat crisis, Central Africa has an even more serious public health issue that needs to be addressed. A recently completed study of nearly 800 monkeys in Cameroon that had been killed for bushmeat or kept alive as pets revealed that a surprisingly high proportion of them were infected with SIV, leading researchers to conclude that "people handling bushmeat are exposing themselves to a plethora of highly divergent viruses." Does the world need an HIV-3 epidemic? Is this not in itself enough to make the point that the opening up of the forest of Central Africa and the hunting of new primate populations exposes all of the world's population to new health risks? If that is not the basis for some more donor conditionality, then what is? Remember what we know about the rain forests of Central Africa and about the loggers savaging it:

Only 20 percent of the world's original rain forests remain intact.

Nobody can agree on what sustainable forestry management is or what it might require to fulfill its undefined promise.

In Central Africa we are dealing with dysfunctional governments; and with dysfunctional governments you do not get genuine development.

Prominent loggers have gone on record stating that the authorities did not want them to log legally, because the corruption potential is higher if the licenses, documents, tax calculations, etc., aren't quite right.

The industry has again and again rejected the only internationally accepted certification standards (FSC) for environmentally sound logging.

Given all those established facts and situations, what justification can there possibly be for conservation organizations to stand on the front line of endorsing and subsidizing logging?

The only justification I can think of is this: the continuing need to buy and sell feel-good conservation. While I have implied earlier that many of the players in this commerce might be playing for the sake of getting a good night's sleep, a recent feature by conservation biologist David Lavigne in BBC Wildlife magazine takes the issue quite a bit deeper. Lavigne argues that ten years after the Rio environmental summit, the single thing that has been sustained, in terms of any real commitment, is the term sustainable development. He asks the question: "So why, in the face of all the evidence that things have continued to deteriorate, do academics, politicians, big business, and even some members of the environmental community continue to advocate sustainable development as a viable solution to the problems confronting the human condition?" His answer to that question: politics. The term sustainable development allows for enough different interpretations that all parties are happy with it. Why? Because, he believes, man is hardwired for deception and self-deception. "It is now widely agreed that deception is a common feature—perhaps the key to survival—of all living organisms, from virus to human. However, we distinguish ourselves from other animals by having evolved a large brain that is capable of the ultimate in deception: self-deception."

So we clearly are up against some of the very basics of human nature. While locally the problems in Africa and other parts of the southern hemisphere might center around the lack of political will and the need for cultural change, the overall bushmeat and eating apes crisis—and possibly other conservation issues—is great compounded by the players in the northern hemisphere: their need for political correctness and success, which in the absence of real change can be sustained with deception and self-deception.


In the fall of 2001, I received a videotape with a program that had been broadcast by WDR in Germany. The documentary traces the collaboration between CIB and WCS and strikes a very positive note when assessing the results. It is also very well done in technical terms. Too well, by my standards. It seemed to me that most of the scenes were staged. For example, it showed the raiding of a poachers' camp by the ecoguards. The camp, according to this film, had been spotted from the air by project personnel. I have been trying to spot a camp I was familiar with in the other Congo from the air—in thick forest as the first camp was shown to be—and I could not locate it despite having the GPS position. So I could only conclude that the camp had been specifically set up for this shoot.

Then there was the scene of the ecoguards searching logging lorries for bushmeat. They were in immaculate uniforms and were all over and under the lorry. Having set up some roadblocks in Cameroon and watched the officials in operation, I was convinced that what they presented was not the day-to-day scenario but "Hollywood" and a propaganda piece for CIB. The question arose as to what would happen at such a roadblock if there were no cameras trained on the ecoguards. That was the basis for Joseph's trip with some hidden camera equipment in February and March of 2002.

Joseph's gorilla habituation project at Lomie had just collapsed, , after exaggerated expectations by several of the players led to an unrealistic increase in the budget—to $150,000 a year. He was keen to have some income while looking for other permanent employment opportunities. I had done several trips with him in Gabon and Cameroon where we operated with hidden camera equipment. We had worked out a routine as what to do with curious officials and how to react should real problems arise. Joseph's attitude always was that the officials one met out in the bush were not interested in enforcing any laws; they were only interested in implying the infringement of laws so that "local fines" could be imposed. He would tell the story of often throwing his bushmeat at officials at barriers, fed up with negotiating bribes, and telling them: "I hope you are going to enjoy my meat." I did not think of warning Joseph that there might be more of a political component to this investigation than we had experienced with previous ones and that he should not rely on the "laws of the street" necessarily applying. However, I made sure Joseph had enough money to buy himself out of any tricky situation.

When he came back from the February/March trip, he reported that all the barriers he drove through were open: there was no control and no stopping. He also came back with bushmeat footage and reports that hunters and meat were still regularly transported on CIB lorries, that the hunters were still not licensed with badges as stipulated in company rules, that high-caliber elephant guns and ammunition were still available (including the steel tips produced in a CIB workshop that fit on top of the standard shotgun shell, turning it into a very potent elephant bullet). He accompanied a hunter on a night hunting trip (illegal under Congolese law and CIB regulations). He also talked to a Pygmy family about how their life had changed. For example, an old man told him how he had been retired from CIB and his pension consisted of a shotgun (without the necessary license), and how his son had been killed in a logging accident some six months earlier and all he had seen from CIB so far was "free transport home for the body of his son."

What struck me watching this material with Joseph was the discrepancy in what CIB was saying, as far as the social infrastructure they were supposedly providing, and what these locals were telling Joseph on tape.

It was a reason to send him back to get clarification on the above issues. Greenpeace Switzerland and Retted den Regenwald in Germany agreed to finance Joseph's per-diem allowance and salary while I provided the camera equipment. He was supposed to arrive at the very end of April and be back by the end of May. On June 3, however, I received a message from Greenpeace Switzerland stating that they had heard from the CIB parent company that Joseph had been arrested on May 13 at Pokola. In the next ten days, with the help of Greenpeace, we learned that Joseph had been transferred to Brazzaville to a high-security prison operated by a political service unit. As for the effectiveness of that extra money he carried with him: it turned out that they took the money, supposedly to pay for his food and his transportation costs to the prison.

Since the World Bank was the main party financing the African Forest Law Enforcement and Governance (AFLEG) Process, which was to take place in Brazzaville the following week, on June 12 I wrote the following letter to James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, and some of his associates:


Open Letter to the World Bank

Att: J. Wolfensohn, T. Ahlers, A. Kiss, G. Topa

Dear Sirs—and Agi,

It would appear that ignoring my last e-mail message, on the imprisonment of Joseph Melloh, has not resulted in the problem going away.

I heard from Greenpeace International about next week's conference in Brazzaville on "Forest Governance and Law Enforcement," which I understand will be attended by all the major players deciding on the future of the forest and wildlife of the Congo River Basin. There hardly seems a more appropriate opportunity to take the bull by the horns if indeed Joseph is now in some jail in Brazzaville, which is the latest rumor coming out of CIB.

What about inviting him to present the findings from his recent investigations? He could always be handcuffed to the podium. I have not spoken to him since several weeks prior to his departure and I would like to suggest that if he reports that everything is as perfect and under control as some of the statements and propaganda pieces coming out of the CIB concession make it out to be, that he, I, and the NGOs who have financed the investigations unreservedly, then and there, apologize to CIB, WCS, and any other party we might have offended by doubting their word. If Joseph has information—he traveled with a specific catalogue of questions—which should turn out to be of value to the logging company, the conservation executives and the law enforcement authority in Pokola, then maybe a medal should be pinned on him.

The fact is if it were not for Joseph, there would be no bushmeat crisis. While he did his share of killing wildlife that is not what I am referring to. He is the one who introduced me and journalists from CNN, BBC, the New York Times, Discovery, etc., to the real story behind the scene. Without these undercover investigations neither the loggers nor the government nor the conservation NGOs would have come forward to point out that there is a huge crisis in the making.

I am today convinced that similar investigations into illegal logging activities and the social impact of commercial logging would yield similar results. Except the doors have now mostly closed, with CIB being the exception where it has always been closed—except for selected prearranged guided tours.

Whatever independent auditing is being suggested by the CEO or the above forum, it is very clear that some expatriates asking some expatriates some questions will yield very different results from locals asking locals. As such I want to recommend that the CEO and the above mentioned forum adopts a plan to officially set up undercover audits by local operatives. With the World Bank being the champion of transparency and accountability I would have hoped for Guiseppe Topa to table such a motion. I see it as the only way to keep the various players honest, and that includes myself.

In the meantime, I feel the time has come where CIB puts the cards on the table as to where Joseph is held and what his condition is. Anybody who knows a little about the power politics of northern Congo knows that this is a question of one phone or radio call for one CIB executive.

I plan to be in Brazzaville next week, and while I am not invited to this meeting, I would be happy to make a presentation on the "Necessity for Undercover Auditing of Logging Operations and Performance." Thanks for your understanding.

Best regards,

Karl Ammann


In talking to participants at the above meeting it became clear that the imprisonment of Joseph was a real embarrassment to many of the organizations and institutions represented and that it went as directly against the spirit of AFLEG as it possibly could. I was, however, told that the CIB/WCS cooperation deal was a very crucial pilot project in the AFLEG process and that the "voluntary cooperation deal with logging" was going to be a cornerstone of a new initiative by the United States government for Central Africa and one of the key initiatives to be launched at the upcoming Rio Plus Ten conference in Johannesburg. So the whole thing had become a lot more political then even I had assumed. Anyhow, World Bank, the E.U., donor agency representatives, and U.N. officials assured me that they were working hard behind the scenes to get the issue resolved. I returned to Kenya frustrated but assuming that the above pressure would bear results sooner rather than later. At this stage Joseph had been held for some six weeks without charges, while national law stipulated that any prisoner not charged within 72 hours had to be released. He had no access to a lawyer or a doctor, nor was he allowed to contact the Cameroon embassy.

However, the Brazzaville trip had been an eye opener as far as the larger political game plan that was in place and the fact that the WCS/CIB cooperation project now had a budget of just under $1 million a year, with 90 percent of the contributions coming in the form of donor and taxpayer money. I also discovered that the taxpayer money included some $600,000 from Switzerland, which opened a new avenue for donor pressure—since I am a Swiss citizen.

In some ways it was gratifying to see the response by the Swiss authorities, since they were willing to debate their position. Certainly a far cry from the attitude of other of the donors to this project. Juergen Blaser, head of the International Tropical Timber Association and the Swiss NGO administering the funds contributed by the Swiss government, returned to Brazzaville and Pokola and played three hours of table tennis with the minister of forestry economy, Henri Djombo. He came back informing me that the minister wanted to have his say and would do so in form of a press conference on Monday, after which Joseph would be deported.

Everybody assumed that this would most likely be the end of the saga.

At the press conference, Minister Djombo told the assembled diplomats, NGO representatives, and the press how Congo was a leader in sustainable forestry and wildlife management and how they did not need anybody looking over their shoulder. He handed out the question list that Joseph had carried with him as conclusive evidence, announcing that Joseph would be charged with economic espionage and that the law would now take its course. Up to this point, many of the above players had considered Henri Djombo a player they could rely on in negotiating the future of Congo's and possible Central Africa's forests. They were stunned, it seems, that he would totally ignore his country's constitution regarding the supposedly independent judiciary by handing out the evidence, passing judgment, and then dumping the case back on the judges.

On the positive side, it was the first time that actual charges had been mentioned officially. Up to then the lawyers had been told that Joseph would be charged with espionage and the sabotaging of CIB, illegal entry in the country, and filming without permission. He had in the meantime been moved from the special security prison to the regular prison, where he was housed on death row—presumably since espionage carries the mandatory death penalty. Then, on July 27, Joseph was charged for the first time with "attacking the external security of the state." This charge carries a one- to five-year sentence but gives the judge leeway in applying mitigating circumstances. The trial was on Monday, July 29, with the lawyer scrambling over the weekend to pull together a new defense based on the new charges (which would require that Joseph had "engaged with the agents of a foreign power to damage the military or diplomatic position of the Congo").

The judge finally ruled that Joseph was guilty of the above, on the grounds that he had been working under my instructions, and that I was an agent of a foreign power! He did not say which one. As for impacting the diplomatic or military position of the Congo, the judge concluded that Joseph's investigation was intended to show that: the state of the Congo took a passive attitude in controlling the logging companies; international donor institutions were financing a logging company (CIB) that destroyed the forests rather than protected them; WCS was implicated in the above, as CIB's partner; and despite the peace prevailing, arms transactions were still continuing, resulting in poaching and the ignoring of the closed hunting season.

I wished the judge's conclusions could be turned into a fair trial against some of the above players, with the evidence Joseph collected being used to prove all of these allegations. In any event, in the sentencing phase of the trial, set for August 12, the judge ruled that Joseph would be sentenced to 45 days in prison. Having served 90 days already, he was released. All the camera equipment and videotapes were retained by the court. Joseph returned to Cameroon, but at the same time, he, myself, and Greenpeace decided to appeal the verdict as a matter of principle.

Many of the players in this saga from day one onwards were convinced that Joseph was essentially a political prisoner. He was asked by his fellow prisoners what he had "really done." Nobody could believe that he ended up in a high-security facility for filming scenes having to do with a bunch of dead animals. None of his fellow prisoners had heard of anyone ever ending up in jail for poaching wildlife; Joseph himself has pointed out that when he only smuggled petrol or poached gorillas he was always able to beat the system. Only when he started trying to demonstrate the lack of enforcement of hunting laws did the authorities decided to throw the book at him. His lawyer agreed with this assessment and so confirmed that we should go for the appeal.

What I find more than distressing in this whole saga is that neither the diplomatic nor the donor community, nor even CIB, seemed able to read the local politicians on this issue. Everyone seemed to agree from the very beginning that this was not a legal but a political issue and that there was no point in relying on the legal system to deliver a fair verdict. Most of the players also seemed to agree that continuing this saga—keeping Joseph in prison—was no longer in anyone's interest. But no one could agree on how to communicate this message to the politicians calling the shots. We consulted a wide range of players to try to figure out the best way to resolve the matter. The feedback ranged from "apply as much external pressure as you can" to "hold off applying pressure so that the authorities can find a face-saving way out."

The question then arises, why would logging companies invest millions of dollars in a country where the minister goes to such great lengths to demonstrate that the judiciary is not independent, that the executive branch of government pulls all the strings? Why should conservation NGOs sign multimillion-dollar partnership agreements with the very ministry that points out the lack of an independent legal system for any dispute? Why would donor organizations spend millions of dollars in endorsing or even subsidizing logging of primary rain forest knowing that the rule of law cannot be relied upon when it comes to the crunch?

In this context, does it make sense to encourage the exploitation of a limited resource in countries where governance is so poor that we have to accept that the rule of law is beyond the understanding of the executive powers one has to deal with—and that therefore genuine, long-term, and actually sustainable development is nothing more than a utopian dream and more self-deception?


People hunt and eat wild animals for protein all over the globe: in the Americas, in Asia and Southeast Asia, essentially wherever there are pieces of wilderness with wild animals left in them. So there is nothing special about the fact that people living in and near forests of West and Central Africa happen to eat wild animal meat and probably have been doing so since human appetite began. But today, with the loss of traditional ways in Africa, with the arrival of modern weapons, modern population growth, and modern cities, and with the unprecedented opening of African forests by European and Asian timber companies, the consumption of wild animal meat has suddenly exploded in scope and impact, moving from what was until recently a subsistence activity to become an enormous commercial enterprise. Eating apes is part of a much larger process, the rapidly increasing consumption of wild animal meat from all species in many, perhaps most forested places around the world. And yet the act of eating apes is itself distinctively destructive because of who they are. They are our sibling species, who share with us between 96 and 99 percent of their genetic code. They are special beings who observe the world through eyes and faces like ours, who manipulate the world with hands and bodies like ours, who experience and display emotions entirely recognizable to us, who make and use tools, who live in astonishingly humanlike social systems and deal with each other politically, who show clear evidence of awareness and foresight, who are capable of learning symbolic language, and who laugh in situations you and I might consider worthy of amusement.

From my own perspective, the ongoing slaughter of apes for sweet food is a bitter nightmare, and so this book touches subjects that people may prefer not to talk or think or read about. To express the matter a little differently, this book is about hard choices and serious ethical and cultural conflicts. The consumption of apes as it occurs today throughout much of their range combines with other threats (such as habitat destruction) to promise imminent extinctions. Yes, we are at this historical moment rapidly eating and in other ways pushing our closest relatives into the dark chasm of nonexistence. The 20,000 remaining wild orangutans of Borneo and Sumatra in Southeast Asia are threatened with their own distinctive balance of problems, which include an illegal trade in live animals and the wholesale devastation of forests by logging, much of it blatantly illegal. Supposedly "protected" habitat for orangutans has been declining by 50 percent per decade in recent times, which suggests that the red-haired Asian ape could be the first of the four modern apes to go extinct. Those distressing and particular issues require their own book, however, and thus, with a sincere apology to the lovers of orangutans and to the orangutans themselves, Eating Apes focuses on the three nonhuman ape species still enduring on the African continent: gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos.

But Eating Apes is a also book about people, in particular two individuals who became variously involved in the subject and problem: Karl Ammann, the determined and difficult man who took all the photographs appearing in this book, and Joseph Melloh, the gorilla hunter from Cameroon who became Karl's friend.





Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage.

          T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets


Apes are distinguished as being among the very few items on the menu capable (before preparation) of laughter as an expression of mirth.


I first heard an ape laugh while walking in the great Taï Forest of Côte d'Ivoire, in West Africa. Primate researcher Christophe Boesch and I followed a group of wild chimpanzees as they moved on their daily circuit, a complex progression from food to food to food, from obscure fruits to tender herbs to hard nuts.

The chimpanzees in this part of West Africa possess a stone and wood technology, striking hammers against anvils to crack otherwise uncrackable nuts. The hammers can be artificially rounded, quite heavy stones; the anvils may be flat stones with deeply worn pockets. Alternatively, the hammers and anvils may, as they did in this case, consist of rough pieces of hardwood left lying at convenient places beneath productive nut trees. Whenever the chimps we followed came to small groves of ripe nut trees, they stopped to gather handfuls of fallen nuts from the ground, walked and carried them in their hands, and then sat or squatted down in front of their hardwood tools. Christophe and I observed these wild apes lean and hunch intently over their labors. We watched them crack open very hard African walnuts (Coula edulis), hefting heavy hammers made from branches and logs and pounding the nuts, which were carefully positioned in grooves and pockets and crotches of the hardwood anvils. Having cracked and then eaten their fill of the nut meat, these apes left the hammers next to the anvils and moved on.

That day's journey was (for me at least) disorienting. I had no sense of direction and little of distance, and the apes regularly appeared and disappeared from sight, proceeding sometimes individually and sometimes in pairs or small groups. At one point, a group large enough to seem like a migrating herd (who knows how many?) stopped at midday for a siesta and spread out around the gray corpse of a giant tree that had collapsed and broken a hole in the forest canopy. A shaft of sunlight pierced the hole and poured bright yellow onto the forest floor, onto the fallen tree and the bushy space around it, and onto the chimps as well, who were sacked out in the sun, faces turned up to the warmth like holiday sunbathers on a beach. After that midday siesta, the chimpanzees roused themselves and continued on their migration, examining a swampy area for apparently tasty plants, climbing trees looking for fruits, and resting from time to time.

Once, during a resting period, I sat next to a bush that shook with what was undeniably laughter: gleeful and hoarse and breathy, with an edge of frantic, side-splitting desperation. It was entirely like human laughter minus the vocalized overlay, as if a person without a voice box had just thought of something impossibly hilarious. I heard gasping and panting with a hoarse kind of wood-sawing sound: whuuu, whuuu, whuuu. The bush opened, and I saw two juvenile chimps inside, wrestling, tumbling, chasing, teasing each other, and laughing their heads off.

I have observed chimpanzee laughter at other times, in other places. I once watched a grizzled old male chase a juvenile male around a tree, with the little one laughing in delight while the old guy pursued and caught him, playfully biting at his foot and tickling him. I have seen wild-born, orphaned bonobos and gorillas laugh, once again seemingly as a frantic expression of delight and mirth. And I have been told by experts that orangutans, too, sometimes laugh.

Animal play is not surprising. Lion cubs play. Wolves and dogs and dolphins play. Many animals play, especially when they are young. I can believe that many animals experience pleasure. It is possible to imagine that some animals experience something we might call "mirth" or perhaps an irrepressible sensation of emotional lightness. But laughter? The famed ethologist Konrad Lorenz once suggested that dogs "laugh," based on his observations of facial expressions during moments of canine delight. But the laughter of apes is entirely different from any mere facial upturn of pleasure. Neither is it even remotely comparable to the high-pitched vocalizations of hyenas that have on occasion been described as "laughter" but are completely unassociated with play or pleasure.

As with "the hidden laughter of children in the foliage" in T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, my own experience of the laughter of apes thus becomes that awkwardly articulated moment in an expedition at once physical and metaphysical. Laughter must be among the most fragile and fleeting of vocal utterances. What does it mean? That apes laugh is undeniable. That their laughter means anything is a matter of opinion.

The laughter of apes occurs most often during direct physical encounters, such as a chase-and-tickle game. But according to Jane Goodall, who has studied wild chimpanzees in East Africa for the last forty years, "even removed and comparatively complex events can induce chimpanzee laughter." Laughter may happen without any direct physical contact—during a chase without the tickle, for instance, perhaps in anticipation of the tickle. Goodall has observed laughter in much more complicated circumstances, as when one chimp observes another's discomfort. Older chimpanzees sometimes tease their younger siblings with a twig in a tug-of-war game; the older one may repeatedly pull the twig away from the younger one and laugh at the frustration induced. In one case, Moeza teased her younger brother Michaelmas with a play twig, and finally scampered into a higher place in a tree where Michaelmas was afraid to follow. When the younger sibling screamed in frustration, Moeza, according to Goodall, "gave soft chuckles as she watched his fury."

The laughter of apes provokes us to consider the possibility of an underlying complexity of cognition and intellect, to wonder about the existence of an ape mind. Laughter, in this sense, seems akin to the fascinating and peculiar capacity to recognize oneself in a mirror, an ability shared by humans and apes but not by monkeys. The classic test was first conducted by American psychologist G. Gordon Gallup, Jr., who in the late 1960s demonstrated that four apes (chimpanzees) knocked out with an anesthetic and then marked on the forehead and one ear with a spot of odorless, tasteless red dye would, when awakened and confronted with a mirror, reach up and touch the red spots on their own faces. Six monkeys, similarly marked and faced with a mirror, continued to treat the mirrored image as a vision of some irritatingly provocative member of their species, threatening and vocalizing at the image. Gallup concluded that he had shown a "decisive difference between monkeys and chimps," and that chimps were thus experimentally shown to have a "self-concept."

Charles Darwin postulated a strong evolutionary continuity between apes and humans, and suggested that apes might therefore possess humanlike emotions, memory, and reasoning. But biologists after Darwin less enthusiastically concluded from the available evidence (mostly in comparative anatomy and paleoanthropology) that the ancestors of Homo sapiens diverged from the line that also produced the four modern great apes some 20 million years ago. Even on the evolutionary calendar that's a long time ago—so long ago, the thinking went, that the continuities between human and ape might prove not so interesting. So humans and apes were considered close relatives who had evolved independently for so long that the relationship between modern humans and modern apes could best be described as that of remote cousins. Based on that reasoning, until a couple of decades ago humans were assigned their own special taxonomic family, the Hominidae, while the great apes were comfortably ensconced in theirs, the Pongidae.

Starting in the 1970s, however, laboratory techniques for manipulating the genetic molecule known as DNA advanced to the point where it became possible to look at evolutionary relationships between species far more precisely than ever before. As a result of the last few decades of careful genetic studies, scientists now recognize that the apes are not merely our nearest relatives but nearer to us than anyone had ever imagined.

Orangutan genetic material shows itself to be 96.4 percent identical to human genetic material, which indicates (calculating from a schedule of likely rates of DNA change) that ancestral orangutans split off from the larger ape line approximately 12 million years ago, leaving the ancestral group of the three modern African apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos) and humans still evolving together as a single genetic lineage.

Modern gorilla DNA is 97.7 percent the same as that of humans, indicating that their line started to evolve independently around 7.5 million years ago. And modern chimpanzee and bonobo DNA turns out to be around 98.7 percent identical to that of modern humans, which suggests that ancestral humans split away from the line that produced chimpanzees and bonobos around 6 million years ago.1

The DNA data show that apes evolved closely as a group and that humans remained part of that group until the first human precursors stepped out into their own evolutionary experiment only 6 million years ago. And the mere 1.3 percent difference between humans and the chimpanzees and bonobos means that we are actually closer to them than zebras are to horses, or African elephants are to Indian elephants.

In more practical terms, those numbers mean that the next time you go to the zoo and wander past cages containing chimpanzees or bonobos, you might pause and look into the eye of a being who will indeed look back; and you should know that you (genetically almost 99 percent chimpanzee) are sharing a gaze with someone who is, according to the best measurement, almost 99 percent human. You are on one side of the bars, the chimps and bonobos on the other side, simply because those apes lack a little more than 1 percent of the requisite genes to be treated like humans. And if you linger to gaze at gorillas in the same zoo, remember that they are sitting on the other side of the bars or the moat not because they have done anything wrong, but simply and solely because they happen to be missing just slightly more than 2 percent of the human genome.

Structurally, the brains of humans exactly resemble the brains of the nonhuman apes, except in size. The largest gorilla brain on record, around 690 cubic centimeters in volume, still is smaller than the smallest known adult human brain, measured at about 790 cubic centimeters. Simply comparing average brain size suggests intellectual differences between human adults and adults of the other ape species. On the other hand, the fact that an adult chimpanzee brain is distinctly larger than the brain of a human child evokes the possibility of overlapping mental qualities.

Cranial capacity is not the same as intellectual capacity, however, and it remains a commonplace act of self-flattery for people to persist in emphasizing that great divide between the intellect of humans and the other apes. Why should we, the makers of such wondrous things as automobiles and computers and atomic bombs, be impressed by them, the makers of mere nutcrackers and termite dippers? We continue to mark not similarity but difference, as if the distinction between us and them is a matter of our own species' pride. Homo sapiens may possess some superficial similarities with Pan troglodytes, it has been declared again and again, but the mental divide between the two species remains uncrossable. "I considered the differences between men and animals," so journalist Jeremy Gavon has recently expressed the idea. "Some were vast. A chimpanzee could be taught to drive a car. It could even be taught to build parts of it. But it could not begin to design it. . . . Our intellect is incomparably more sophisticated than any animal."

True, a chimpanzee could not begin to design a car. But, come to think of it, neither could I. Nor could you or any other person working in intellectual isolation—without the help of books, conversations, directions, documents, explanations, and traditions—design a car. Or even a bicycle. Or a pair of shoes. Or a mousetrap. Apes work in intellectual isolation because they lack language. We have language, and therefore our creations and inventions and technologies become collective efforts and cultural products. No one person designed or invented the automobile. Automobiles derive from earlier transportation technologies, and from power and metallurgic technologies that go back as far as the first tool that turned the first wheel and the first fire that smelted the first piece of shiny metal. Nor did one brilliant person hiding in a garage in northern California invent the personal computer. Computers appeared as the consequence of developments in the Chinese abacus, ninth-century Arabic mathematics, the eighteenth-century jacquard loom, nineteenth-century mechanical office machines, twentieth-century electronics, and so on. Bicycles were not possible before bicycle wheels; bicycle wheels were inconceivable before spokes; spokes were impossible before spokeshaves. None of the technologies that have elevated our own species into a position of planetary mastery has been created by an individual person working in isolation and inspired solely by the brilliance of an intellect that is "incomparably more sophisticated" than that of the apes. With your brain alone, with my brain alone (minus language and a language-based tradition), we would consider ourselves very lucky indeed to think of cracking nuts between a stone hammer and a stone anvil. Our greatest human creation is not the tool but the word, not the technology that we so treasure and depend on but the language that has allowed us to talk about it. Language, not technology, is the most compelling artifact of the human intellect.


You and I have minds and consciousness, so we believe, but the main reason we maintain such a strange and difficult belief is that we can talk about it. In talking about it, we at once express and demonstrate our own sophisticated mentality. Without talking, without words and the ability to use them, the demonstration of mentality or mind becomes a knotty problem (even though we readily assume that every nonspeaking human being has a mind). How do we measure or think about mind and consciousness in the case of apes, who appear so tantalizingly close to human in some ways yet are ordinarily unable to speak or communicate in the ways we expect? Is their lack of speech the best demonstration that they have no minds (or terribly limited ones), or does their lack of speech mostly construct a rampart against our understanding?

Humans may have begun using words relatively recently. Since our ancestors' brains reached the modern size a quarter of a million years ago, it is possible to imagine Homo sapiens began speaking then. The distinctive anatomy of the human throat and thus vocal capacity seem to have been in place even earlier; but perhaps the best indicators of the appearance of spoken language are the archaeological signs of a sudden explosion in art—cultural and symbolic expression—began perhaps 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, in the Upper Paleolithic. Whenever the language barrier was crossed, it is logical to suppose that the crossing was not instantaneous or unprecedented, with the ability to speak appearing as a magically inserted "speech organ," a linguistic deus ex machina. There must have been an extended transition, perhaps an adaptive shift from a somewhat inefficient habit of communication to an increasingly efficient one. And well before the language barrier was crossed, our prespeaking ancestors would have been thoughtful, manipulative, aware creatures, men and women who probably inhabited a mental and perceptual world not so different from ours. They must have somehow been prepared, neurologically and mentally, to press their thoughts into sound shapes produced by tongue and mouth, and thus ready to explore and enjoy the tremendous advantage that a high-speech transmission of auditory information would provide. What would that preparation entail?

Our ancestors' preparation for speech could have been, according to one theory, the sort of development that accompanied tool making and gesturing. Before speech, people would almost certainly have been toolmakers, and most likely they would have been gesturers as well. They may have been using a crude gestural language, just as human infants do before they begin to gain control over the muscles of their tongue and so start to talk—and just as any of us might do when scuba diving, when stuck in a foreign country without knowing the language, or when attempting to conceal our true intentions from a third party or an opposing team. Other observations from everyday life reinforce our sense that speech and gesture actually fall on a continuum of communicative behavior and are closely associated neurologically. More than we ordinarily recognize, normal speech amounts to gestural and spoken language working in tandem. Good preachers and orators understand this fact well, and so they almost invariably combine the two modalities. The rest of us often spontaneously gesture with our faces, bodies, and hands as we speak, even when we cannot been seen, as when speaking into the telephone. Likewise, a fiercely concentrating beginner at some difficult manual task (sewing, perhaps, or playing tennis) may find his or her tongue creeping about, uncontrollably moving in lingual sympathy with the hand.

Studies of wild apes provide another line of evidence that gesture was the critical prelude to speech. As the Dutch ethologist Adriaan Kortlandt once observed, wild chimpanzees use symbolic gestures (of fingers, hands, arms, body, face) to produce many effective and significant communications. Interestingly enough, several of these gestures seem close to universal or trans-specific, with the apparent meaning immediately recognizable to human onlookers: waving someone away with an underhand or overhand "go away" signal, intimidation displays such as drumming on roots or stomping on the ground, making a "halt" sign the traffic police would use, kissing, holding hands, a superior charitably stretching out a hand to a cringing subordinate, the beggar's desperate supplication.

Beyond or behind their significant repertoire of gestures, wild chimpanzees also show a capacity for other sorts of finely controlled, sequential manipulations that involve extended learning and planning: the making and using of tools. In October 1960, Jane Goodall first discovered that the chimpanzees at Gombe Stream Reserve in East Africa were fishing for termites. Insects are a significant source of dietary protein among the chimpanzees of Gombe, and by far the most popular is the termite Macrotermes bellicosus, which builds and inhabits large earthen mounds. From October to December each year, when the termites tunnel out to the surface of their mounds, and the reproductively inclined members of their colony sprout wings and begin to fly out to form new colonies, chimpanzees catch them as they emerge from the holes. The winged termites are large and fat and obviously make good food. Indeed, chimpanzees may be competing with baboons, monkeys, small mammals, and even peopleto catch and eat these winged bundles of protein. But the Gombe chimpanzees also fish for the wingless soldiers of these colonies, who ordinarily remain deep inside the mounds guarding against intruders. Whenever an intruder or intruding object enters the nest, these soldier insects attack with their fiercely gripping mandibles. Chimpanzees take advantage of this inclination by fashioning long, flexible probes from grass or twigs and inserting the probes deep into a termite exit hole to disturb the soldiers. The soldiers attack, bite, and hold on with their mandibles, and the chimpanzees carefully draw out their termite-laden probes and gobble up the insects. Since the tunnels go deep and tend to be narrow and twisty, chimpanzees must fashion their probes to the correct length, thinness, and flexibility. And since in withdrawing the probe it is easy to brush off the clinging insects, chimpanzees spend a good deal of time learning how to termite-fish properly. They learn by watching and imitating older members of the community; and they usually achieve the proper technique around the age of five or six, with young females acquiring the skill about a year earlier than males.

Not long ago, toolmaking was considered one of the defining characteristics of being human. After Jane Goodall's first publications about chimpanzee termite-fishing at Gombe, the description toolmaker was quietly removed from our list of unique human characteristics. We now know that chimpanzees make and use a wide variety of tools, and that their tool production and use show some of the marks of language production. Both tool and language production involve refined and sequential motor control. Both appear to be mentally deliberative: that is, both are produced and used sparingly in appropriate ways, suggesting observation, planning, and decision making. Both look clearly to include learned behaviors, in which the learning probably happens as a combination of observation and imitation. And, quite like human language behavior, the tool-using behavior of chimpanzees shows signs of cultural differentiation. That is to say, chimpanzee communities in different parts of Africa have distinctly different traditions of tool use.

Tools and uses for tools have appeared across Africa in various chimp communities, probably invented by clever individuals and modified by other clever individuals within the community, then copied and imitated and sometimes shared. Some chimp technologies have spread only locally, within a single community or two, while others seem to have spread across an entire region. As mentioned above, chimpanzees at Gombe National Park, in Tanzania, fashion and use long, flexible twigs or blades of grass to fish for termites in termite nests. On the opposite side of the continent, across a narrow stretch of patchy habitat that reaches from the Sassandra River in Ivory Coast west through Liberia and Guinea to the Moa River in Sierra Leone, various chimpanzee communities specialize in pounding stone and wood hammers onto flat stone or wood anvils in order to crack open the very hard nuts of six different species; nut cracking too is a difficult skill to master, and infant and juvenile chimps develop their abilities through years of imitation and practice. Meanwhile, in the arid region of Tongo (in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo), chimpanzees carry around with them the water-filled roots of a Clematis plant, which they use and sometimes share in the style of a water bottle.

Cultural learning among chimpanzees is obviously limited by the fact that they cannot talk about what they do. They have no natural language (as far as anyone has yet been able to determine), a limitation that may appear more serious to anthropologists (who regularly define culture as uniquely human) than it does to anthropoids. But one of the clues about the special mental world of the apes arises from long-term research on chimpanzees at a half dozen to a dozen sites, combined with occasional observations elsewhere, for a total of almost fifty different locations in Africa. Every chimpanzee group studied so far has shown us a different preferred way of doing things, flexible behavior that must be transmitted through learning and tradition. If we consider just the making and using of tools, every chimpanzee group studied is using a unique set of tools and tool techniques. Chimpanzee tool-using traditions, in short, are distinctive more for diversity than commonality. Moss may become a sponge in one place, while leaves perform that function in another. Leaves can be wipes elsewhere and containers in yet another place. Small stems in one locale will be turned into probes or lures, whereas leafy twigs farther afield might become whisks or toys. Small sticks can be used as probes and lures; long sticks as hooks, drills, lures, and missiles; thick sticks as missiles, clubs, and hammers; and rocks may be transformed into missiles, clubs, hammers, or toys.

So the daily lives of wild chimpanzees provide more support to the intriguing theory that, in human evolution, a deft and sometimes symbolic manipulation of hands prepared the way for similar kinds of tongue and throat manipulation. But to my mind by far the most compelling evidence for such an event appears in the astonishing recent successes of experimenters teaching symbolic language to captive apes.

Robert Yerkes, the psychologist often considered to be the father of American primatology, once thoughtfully declared that he could think of "no obvious reason why the chimpanzee and the other great apes should not talk." That hunch was first seriously tested in the 1930s when an American couple, Winthrop and Luella Kellogg, experimentally raised a chimpanzee baby, Gua, alongside their own baby boy, Donald. The results, alas, were discouraging. Gua developed very quickly and became physically strong and mobile a good deal faster than did the child, but after several months of the best baby treatment the Kelloggs could provide (with both baby and chimp diapered, bottled, coddled, fussed over, spoken to, and so on), the little person began to speak, but the little ape did not. The Kelloggs became convinced that their Gua could understand a vocabulary of around one hundred words, but he never uttered one. Meanwhile (so rumor has it), the human baby, Donald, started making chimp noises, and the parents, alarmed at this unanticipated reversal, terminated their experiment.

A decade later, another American couple, psychologist Keith Hayes and his wife, Catherine, raised a chimpanzee named Viki in their household as if she were their own baby, and they eagerly spoke to her and tried to teach her to speak back. But after six years in this nurturing human environment, poor Viki probably understood a good deal of spoken language but could only with a great effort produce the strangled approximation of four words: mama, papa, up, and cup.

The conclusion from these early failures seemed to be that chimpanzees, and by extension probably all four of the great apes, are intellectually incapable of learning human language. Around the same time an emerging theory among linguists held that language was uniquely human, a tendency or talent embedded at conception in the mysterious latticework of every person's brain: an inherited, species-wide "language organ." As the best known and most polemical proponent of this theory, Noam Chomsky, once remarked, "Acquisition of even the barest rudiments of language is quite beyond the capacities of an otherwise intelligent ape."

In fact, the early ape language researchers had unthinkingly confused language with speech, an association that would exclude the language of deaf people who in the United States use a gestural language known as American Sign Language. And the early failures had demonstrated only that chimpanzees are probably incapable of producing symbolic language through manipulating their tongue and larynx. Indeed, both Gua and Viki seemed capable of understanding language; and little Viki, at least, had demonstrated an intriguing creativity. She was unable to say the word car, but she had figured out how to ask to go for a ride in the car by tearing out pictures of cars from magazines and handing them, as if they were tickets, to her human adoptive parents. In any case, Viki's eager efforts to express in vocalized speech the words mama, papa, up, and cup were recorded on film; during the 1960s, Allen Gardner and Beatrix Gardner at the University of Nevada in Reno watched that film and noted how difficult it was for Viki to say those four words, but how expressively she gestured as she tried to make her intentions and desires known.

The Gardeners thus decided to try a gestural language, and after some consideration they chose American Sign Language (ASL). ASL consists of around fifty basic signs produced through a combination of hand shapes, movements, and placements against or across various parts of the body. The signs of ASL include some that have no clear relationship to the object or event they indicate (index finger drawn across the forehead means black) and others that are iconic (stroking imaginary whiskers across the face means cat). Individual signs are combined, like spoken words, into longer sentences, using rules of syntax to create meaning. Indeed, ASL works the same as any spoken language, except that it happens to be much slower and therefore, from necessity, it contains shortcuts. Shortcuts include the absence of the linking verb to be, so that the spoken "You are happy" becomes, in sign language, "You happy." Nouns are also frequently transformed into verbs, using syntax and gestural emphasis to clarify meaning, so that a spoken "Give me an apple" might become a signed "Apple me."

Just as earlier experimenters had done, the Gardners (and then Roger Fouts, their best graduate student, who soon took over the project) presumed that the most sensible way to conduct this experiment was to raise a chimpanzee from infancy within some approximation of a human household, and thus to teach language to an ape in much the way that language is passed on to human children. And so their first experimental subject, a baby chimpanzee acquired in the summer of 1967 and named Washoe, was bathed, played with, and signed to in ASL.

By September of 1967, Washoe had learned to use the sign for drink (hitchhiker's fist with thumb to mouth), dog (pat on thigh), flower (touch nose with fingertip), listen (index finger to ear), open (hands flattened and closed, then opened), and hurt (index fingers together then pointed at source of pain). By then Washoe had also shown she was capable of generalizing from the particular to the general: that is, she appeared to understand that all dogs, as well as pictures of them in magazines, were dog. After ten months, she was combining words creatively to expand on the meaning, thus producing such primitive sentences as "Gimme sweet" and "Come open" and "You me hide" and "You me go out." By 1969, Washoe was regularly using a vocabulary of thirty signs. Two years later, that number had increased to eighty-five standard ASL signs that referred to objects, qualities, concepts, and grammatical connections. (Before any sign was added to the official list of her vocabulary, three separate observers had to note on three independent occasions that it was made correctly, spontaneously, and appropriately. Once the new sign was noted in that fashion, it would then be listed as part of her vocabulary if it was used correctly, spontaneously, and appropriately fifteen days in a row.)

She also very quickly began combining her vocabulary spontaneously, as in the sentences "Gimme sweet" and "Come open." Washoe would ask for a tickle game by saying "Roger you tickle"; to be let outdoors by signing "You me go out hurry"; to get something out of the refrigerator with "Open food drink"; and to note the sound of a barking dog she could hear but not see with "Listen dog."

Roger Fouts's project ranks today as the longest continuous ape language study in the world. He currently works with five chimpanzees who inhabit a large, ape-friendly enclosure at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. The five chimps include Washoe, three other adults, and a younger adult male named Loulis. Washoe has been using sign language with humans since 1967; the three others began in the 1970s. Although Loulis is an active member of the chimpanzee linguistic community, he has never been taught sign language by humans. Indeed, the human experimenters deliberately restricted their signing in the presence of Loulis, communicating with the other chimps using only seven essential signs: which, what, want, where, who, sign, and name. But by his eighth day in the cage, Loulis had made his first spontaneously learned sign. Within eighteen months, he was using two dozen signs spontaneously, none of them from the seven that people used in his presence, and he eventually became entirely fluent in the language solely from observing and imitating his cagemates. Today, all five chimpanzees at Central Washington use American Sign Language well enough to have conservations with human deaf signers, even when those people have never communicated with apes before in their lives.

What does it mean when apes engage in such complex symbolic behaviors? I believe it means that the apes share something of our human mental world. It suggests the further possibility that apes have a legitimate mental existence, that they have perhaps a mind and even possibly a consciousness not so very different from ours. Speech requires a speaker: an ego-centralized intelligence, an organized sense of self and others. Still (as I noted a while back), adult human brains are distinctly bigger than the brains of adult nonhuman apes, and if the great technologies that so distinguish and isolate our species came largely as a consequence of human spoken language, we might reasonably presume that language capacity appeared as a gift or a consequence of the larger human brain. But where did the larger brain come from? To rephrase that question: Since the brain is by far a mammal's most metabolically expensive organ, how did it happen that only our ancestors managed to acquire (consistently, regularly, over extended time) the calories needed to purchase and maintain that admittedly wonderful piece of equipment?


Inside a forest at the edge of the crashing Atlantic, in Côte d'Ivoire, I once was invited to observe the clues to a curious archeological mystery, which I believe has not yet been perfectly solved: a few scratched and marked flat rocks skirted by small heaps of cracked shells from two species of Acatina giant land snails. The large spiral shells, striped in brown and nicotine yellow or shades of drab olive, appeared disproportionately scattered to one side of the flat rocks, suggesting that the agent who created the heaps had squatted down, methodically cracked the shells by hammering them on the anvil-like rocks (hence the scratches and marks), and tossed the shells to one side. Several of the shells were nearly intact save for a smashed top end, suggesting a technique of breaking open that top end and reaching into the shell to get at the meat inside. Since we were moving into the region of West Africa where wild chimps use stone hammers and anvils to crack open hard nuts, had we stumbled across a new if similar case of chimp ingenuity? On the other hand, Acatina is also food for humans, so perhaps the shell heaps merely indicated that local people had been harvesting and eating the snails. We asked a local hunter named Daniel Abrou, a gaunt man of middle age with a small mustache and receding hair, to give his opinion: Was the shell breaker and snail eater animal or human? He examined the flat rocks and the shell heaps, and then shook his head and declared (in an African French where viande, the usual word for meat, sometimes also indicates wild animal): "Only meat eats meat raw."

Cooking is indeed the quintessential human act or skill, possibly even more significant than speech, since cooking may have led directly to the extra reserves of nutrition necessary, beginning around 1.8 million years ago, for our australopithecine ancestors' spectacular expansion in brain size. Suggestive evidence for human taming of fire, as a direct prelude to cooking, includes thermally altered stone artifacts and circles of clay dated at 1.5 to 1.7 million years ago found at sites in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania, as well as 1.1.5-million-year-old burned bones from the Swartkans cave of South Africa. Cooking removes toxins, inhibits parasites and disease-causing microbes, and softens or predigests many otherwise indigestible, high-cellulose foods. Cooking, in short, must have opened up entirely new food resources for our human ancestors, including roots and tubers, and it certainly ought to have expanded dramatically the overall reserves of nutrition available. Surplus nutrition is particularly important in this theoretical picture, since the large brain of Homo erectus and early humans would have been nutritionally expensive indeed. Our large brain, which consumes around one-fifth of our total calorie intake, could not have developed (as the fossil evidence suggests it did 1.8 million years ago) without a sudden burst in available sources of nutrition.

In short, when we cook our nearest relatives, the apes, we may be displaying the one cultural capacity, predating language, that most clearly marks our own very special distinction from them.



1 Chimps and bonobos divided only around 1.5 million years ago, and they still share some 99.3 percent of their genetic material. They resemble each other so closely that many people at first have difficulty distinguishing individuals from the two species. Bonobos typically weigh about 15 percent less than chimps, and they are more slender, with smaller ears. They also live in less violent, more egalitarian, and more elaborately sexualized societies.

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