Monkeys and Apes – Natural histories of extraordinary species that changed our world


Monkeys and Apes – Natural histories of extraordinary species that changed our world

Cousins – A Mirror to Ourselves

The scene was much the same as the end of many royal dinners in the early nineteenth century: a curious blend of decorum and informality. Much wine had been drunk. The men lit their pipes and began a more relaxed conversation. But one guest was not happy. It was his first royal dinner and he’d been on his best behaviour until now. Although he too smoked a pipe and enjoyed a glass of gin, he was unable to join in the discussions around him. He was getting increasingly agitated, because he was jealous of the king’s marked attentions towards one of the lady guests. After all, George IV had long been notorious for his womanising, even though the beautifully made clothes, fashionable haircut, and even the corsets he was squeezed into could do little to improve the physical appearance of the ageing and corpulent king. Nevertheless, it was common knowledge that noble families were still careful not to leave their unmarried daughters alone in his company.

Finally the guest had had enough. The exact details of what happened next are unclear. What we do know is that the offending diner was summarily ejected from the royal presence before he could wreak any more havoc. Which, being a male mandrill – the world’s largest species of monkey, and about the size and weight of a ten-year-old child – he probably would have done.

Mandrills are the largest of more than 150 different species of Old World monkeys (the family Cercopithecidae). They are only found in a small corner of West Central Africa: in the dense tropical rainforests of Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Republic of the Congo. They can be very hard to see in the wild because unlike other monkeys they often hunt on the forest floor; but if you do catch a glimpse of one, it is not easily forgotten. The males are one of the most striking, and certainly the most colourful, of all the world’s primates, as conservationist and primatologist Ian Redmond describes:

Male mandrills are the most spectacular monkeys – like a bigger, stockier baboon with a brightly coloured face and rear end. The face is most peculiar, with ridged skin and a nose like an enormous red phallus, where the nostrils become testicles and the nose is shaped like a penis. It’s as if they are wearing a badge that says, ‘I’ve got big genitalia on my face!’

The bizarre colours and shapes at both ends of the mandrill are, like many similar features in nature, the result of sexual selection; over many generations, females have preferred males with larger and more brightly coloured features, which has created an evolutionary pressure towards more prominent ones. Mandrills have long fascinated scientists: Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man that ‘no other member in the whole class of mammals is coloured in so extraordinary a manner’.

Even today we know little about the mandrill. They are nervous of people, with good reason, as Ian Redmond explains:

Sadly I’ve only ever seen mandrills dead on a bushmeat trader’s slab – literally piles of them. They often move around in large hordes, consisting of several family groups that have come together, maybe hundreds of them. And because they move around the forest talking to each other, grunting and crowing, hunters with dogs are able to round them up and shoot them.

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Human slavery was not finally abolished until 1833, and so at this time vast numbers of people were still being transported on slave ships from Africa. Among them were stowaways. Happy Jerry – the mandrill that would go on to so offend the king – arrived in Bristol from the Gold Coast of West Africa in 1815, the same year as the Duke of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. Born in the rainforest, he had been captured by hunters as a very young animal, so young that he adopted the captain and crew of the slave ship that had bought him as his new family, and mimicked their behaviour, picking up their habits in the same way that any young primates – including human children – learn. Later he gained a taste for strong gin and pipe tobacco, both of which he would happily consume while sitting in his favourite armchair.

Jerry was put on display outside the Exeter Exchange, a Georgian shopping mall on London’s Strand which also housed a menagerie. Jerry shared his new home with lions and tigers, whose loud roars would often startle passers-by and crowds in the street below. His fame soon spread, with throngs of people – sometimes including Wordsworth and Byron, who were regular visitors – coming to see this genial and very human-like primate. Finally word reached the ear of the king who, always on the lookout for new and unusual experiences, issued the fateful invitation to dinner.

Happy Jerry cut a rakish figure in Regency England. There was great sadness all round when the mandrill died in 1831. He’d provided entertainment and enlightenment and a window into a very different world for fashionable Georgians, whom he amused and appalled in equal measure. So much so that he was stuffed and mounted, then at some later date unstuffed so that today his folded skin rests in the Life Sciences Mammal Collection of the Natural History Museum. Principal Curator Richard Sabin accounts for his appeal: ‘It was a fascination with his humanness – the elements of humanity that he displayed – but every so often he would remind people that he was a wild animal, and show it. Fortunately people like to be shocked as well as entertained.’

Monkeys and apes are the creatures most like us on earth: our closest relatives. And together, we have been on quite a journey.

We are especially captivated by the group of higher primates known as the ‘great apes’, in the family Hominidae (the name itself is an indication of the closeness between these animals and human beings). These six species – the western and eastern (also known as lowland and mountain) gorillas, Bornean and Sumatran orang-utans, the chimpanzee, and its smaller relative the bonobo – are our closest living relatives, so it’s hardly surprising that we find them fascinating.

Apes – which also include the nineteen species of gibbon – differ from the world’s 300 or so monkeys in several important ways. The most obvious difference is that apes do not have tails, while most monkeys (though not quite all) do. Apes are also generally larger, have better sight, and in the case of the chimpanzee and gorillas, can use tools and have developed a rudimentary form of language. And whereas monkeys can be found in both the Old and New Worlds – baboons, macaques, colobus monkeys and others in Asia and Africa; and tamarins, marmosets, capuchins and their relatives in South and Central America – apes are only found in the Old World continents of Africa (chimps, bonobos and gorillas) and Asia (gibbons and orang-utans).

Our relationship with the great apes has been a long and complex one. Our prehistoric ancestors hunted them for food, a custom that remained sustainable for centuries until the invention of reliable and accurate firearms gave one side an unfair advantage over the other. Since then, the population of all the great apes has declined, partly through over-hunting, but also because of habitat loss, especially in South East Asia, where the two species of orang-utan are now highly endangered. Another problem is the spread of human-borne infectious diseases: not only serious ones such as Ebola, but even apparently harmless viruses including the common cold, which can prove lethal to chimpanzees and gorillas.

Scientists have long studied the higher primates; indeed chimpanzees and gorillas have been the subject of more in-depth studies than almost any other species of wild mammal. Gorilla scientist Ian Redmond argues that spending long periods of time with these animals, our closest relatives on earth today, has given him a unique insight into their lives:

It’s about having that inter-species friendship with a wild animal who’s not dependent on you – you’re not feeding them, you’re not doing anything to them other than watching them to observe their natural behaviour – but their natural behaviour includes interacting with friendly beings who happen to be around them – and that’s us.

The physical similarity between humans and the great apes is striking and when we look into their eyes we cannot help but see ourselves reflected back. Yet these intriguing animals can seem so near to us and yet also so distant. Ian Redmond is fascinated by the similarities but also the differences:

We used to describe the other apes as ‘sub-human primates’ – now we use the term ‘non-human primates’. But we are apes – genetically we are very close to chimps and bonobos – so it is fascinating to observe them and see things they do that are very like us, and also the things they do very differently.

Of all the human encounters with the great apes through history, one stands out: a famous film sequence first broadcast on the landmark BBC TV series Life on Earth in 1979. Consistently voted one of the most memorable TV moments of all time, it involves presenter David Attenborough going to meet a troop of gorillas in the volcanic forests on the border between Rwanda and Zaire. Attenborough sets aside his script and simply turns to camera, letting his emotions speak for him:

There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know. Their sight, their hearing, their sense of smell are so similar to ours that we see the world in the same way as they do. They live in the same sort of social groups with largely permanent family relationships. They walk around on the ground as we do, though they are immensely more powerful than we are. And so if there were ever a possibility of escaping the human condition and living imaginatively in another creature’s world, it must be with the gorilla.

That sequence was a turning point for these gentle giants. For the very first time, millions of people watching at home saw them as peaceable animals, living as a family and allowing another species to come close to their young and even play with them. It showed a bond of trust that was both humbling and challenging, especially so because for much of our history we have treated gorillas as dangerous monsters. It is this continual tension between regarding apes as either our cousins or our enemies that has given rise to such misunderstanding between us, and has ultimately defined our relationship.

Humans lived alongside these animals in the African rainforests for millennia, but everything changed when, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the age of exploration coincided with the development of more lethal and accurate weapons. The invention of the gun changed not only the way human beings relate to each other but also human–animal relationships too. Suddenly, these large and powerful animals could be brought down at a distance, with little or no risk to the human hunter. In the age of exploration and acquisition that dominated the Victorian period, the gun was a valuable tool.

Expeditions were mounted to bring back specimens for museums and private collectors, and intrepid hunters became the celebrities of their day, recounting their adventures in bestselling books. In Adventures and Explorations in Equatorial Africa, published in 1861, French-American explorer Paul Du Chaillu recounted the day his party tracked a huge male gorilla – the first time the existence of these mighty beasts had been reliably confirmed:

Suddenly an immense gorilla advanced out of the wood straight toward us, and gave vent, as he came up, to a terrible howl of rage, as much as to say, ‘I am tired of being pursued, and will face you.’

It was a lone male, the kind which are always most ferocious. This fellow made the woods resound with his roar, which is really an awful sound, resembling very much the rolling and muttering of distant thunder …

We at once gathered together; and I was about to take aim and bring him down where he stood, when Malaouen stopped me, saying in a whisper, ‘Not time yet.’

We stood, therefore, in silence, gun in hand. The gorilla looked at us for a minute or so out of his evil gray eyes, then beat his breast with his gigantic arms – and what arms he had! Then he gave another howl of defiance, and advanced upon us. How horrible he looked! I shall never forget it.

Once again, Du Chaillu lifts his gun to fire, and once again his guide stays his hand. By now he is fearful that they have let the beast get too close, and that it will kill them:

Again the gorilla made an advance upon us. Now he was not twelve yards off. I could see plainly his ferocious face. It was distorted with rage; his huge teeth were ground against each other, so that we could hear the sound; the skin of the forehead was drawn forward and back rapidly, which made his hair move up and down, and gave a truly devilish expression to the hideous face. Once more he gave out a roar, which seemed to shake the woods like thunder; I could really feel the earth trembling under my feet. The gorilla, looking us in the eyes, and beating his breast, advanced again.

‘Don’t fire too soon,’ said Malaouen; ‘if you do not kill him, he will kill you.’

This time he came within eight yards of us before he stopped. I was breathing fast with excitement as I watched the huge beast.

Malaouen said only ‘Steady’ as the gorilla came up. When he stopped, Malaouen said ‘Now!’

And before he could utter the roar for which he was opening his mouth, three musket-balls were in his body. He fell dead almost without a struggle.

The gorilla was a huge male, about the height of a small man, tall with enormous, muscled arms and powerful hands and feet, far stronger than any human, but still, as Du Chaillu observed, strangely humanoid in appearance: ‘While the animal approached us in its fierce way, walking on its hind legs and facing us as few animals dare face man, it really seemed to me to be a horrid likeness of man.’

Encounters like this – an angry male gorilla charging at a hunter – became all too common. The prowess of the hunter was celebrated in set pieces of shocking taxidermy in museums around the world, as Ian Redmond explains: ‘When the specimens came back they were mounted in a way that depicted that moment. It’s like a nineteenth-century version of a YouTube hit – in the hunter’s mind there’s that moment when he pulled the trigger and the animal died, and that vivid image was captured for ever …’

It wasn’t long before another new invention – the cinema – realised the box-office potential of monster apes attacking defenceless humans – or, as in one 1933 thriller – falling in love with them. It may be more than eighty years old, but the original King Kong (there have been numerous sequels, remakes and spin-offs, as well as computer games, theme-park rides and countless parodies) remains as popular as ever.

The simple plot is deceptively powerful. Kong is a giant gorilla who, having been brought to the very human world of New York as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’, goes on the rampage. While wreaking havoc on the terrified city, he falls in love with a beautiful young girl, memorably played by Fay Wray, whose terrified screaming when Kong takes her in his giant hands is one of cinema’s most iconic moments. King Kong had all the elements of a great movie, and was based on a very real perception of apes at the time. They were still the aggressors who took any chance to attack us.

This view began to change during the second half of the twentieth century. An important turning point was another film, Gorillas in the Mist, which brought to our attention the pioneering work of Dian Fossey, the American gorilla scientist who showed us the intimate lives of these gentle giants – and the threats to them from poaching.

Dian Fossey was determined to discover more about the lives of wild gorillas, not simply by the traditional ‘sit and observe’ method favoured by most zoologists, but by getting to know them as individuals and families. So for almost two decades she studied a group of gorillas in the mountainous forests of Rwanda, making major advances in our knowledge and understanding, especially of how they communicate, what they eat and their social relationships.

In late 1985 Fossey was murdered as she slept in her cabin – possibly by poachers or an employee with a grudge, but maybe also because she opposed gorilla tourism, which brought major benefits to the local economy. The last entry in her diary presciently read: ‘When you realise the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.’

However, Fossey’s legacy might still have been forgotten, were it not for the huge worldwide success of Gorillas in the Mist. Although the film is a drama, not a documentary, it is hard to overestimate its influence on people’s attitudes, as Ian Redmond describes:

Gorillas in the Mist reached audiences that you can only dream of getting to; because of the publicity and the numbers of people who were inspired by Dian Fossey, we’ve turned things around. The film engaged the world in that issue and as a result of that the countries with mountain gorillas have managed to protect them, and the movie is an important part of that.

Gradually, through the influence of this film, David Attenborough’s encounter with mountain gorillas and many more books, documentary films and stories, a more realistic view of apes began to emerge, one that we are familiar with today. Children were also encouraged to think about a two-way relationship with animals in cartoons and in the film Dr Dolittle, based on Hugh Lofting’s books. Talking to the animals is exactly what Dian Fossey did: she learned gorilla-speak to show the gorillas she was not a threat, which allowed us to get those wonderful, close encounters we see on film. As a newly qualified biologist, Ian Redmond had the good fortune to work with Fossey, and remembers how she did it: ‘She learned to use their little quiet vocalisations they make to each other – contact calls to keep in touch with the rest of the group. By using a reassuring sound, a friendly sound, Dian learned that eventually they will accept you, almost as an honorary member of the family.’

Dian Fossey wasn’t the first person to be curious about the behaviour of primates, and the way their lives intersect with ours. In the late seventeenth century, more than a hundred years before Happy Jerry came to London, Edward Tyson – one of the foremost anatomists of his day – managed to obtain the body of a young chimpanzee. Like Jerry, this animal had been taken on board a ship in West Africa and treated as if it were a child. When the ship docked in London, Tyson spoke to a sailor who had looked after the animal, to find out how it had behaved during the long voyage from Angola to London:

After our pygmy [sic] was taken and a little used to wear clothes, it was fond enough of them, and what it could not put on himself it would bring in his hands to some of the company on the ship to help him put on. It would lie in a bed, place his head on the pillow, and pull the clothes over him as a man would do, but was so careless as to do all nature’s occasions there [too].

The chimpanzee also learned to eat and drink – mostly in moderation:

After it was taken and made tame, it would readily eat anything that was brought to the table, and very orderly bring his plate thither to receive what they would give him. Once it was made drunk with punch, and they are fond enough of strong liquors, but it was observed that after that time it would never drink above one cup, and refused the offer of more than what he found agreed with him.

As a committed member of the temperance movement, Tyson’s report of the chimp’s moderate drinking habits may well have been recast to carry a moral message for his readers. Professor Erica Fudge, expert in animals and culture, explains: ‘You get the sense that even back then these sailors were unable to view this anthropoid animal as anything other than anthropoid, and they wanted this to be a little human, and they obviously enjoyed its company …’

For Edward Tyson, the chimpanzee provided him with an opportunity to test out one of his theories about human intelligence. This was long before Darwin developed his theory of evolution by natural selection, and scientists viewed the world in a far more ordered way, taking their inspiration from classical thinkers such as Aristotle. As Erica Fudge, Professor of English Studies at the University of Strathclyde and Director of the Animal Studies Network, points out: ‘What Tyson discovered was that chimpanzees are closer to humans on more factors than they are to monkeys. He argued that what this tells us is that this little creature is what he calls the nexus of the human and the animal.’

But that wasn’t the only thing Tyson found out. As he dissected the animal, he discovered that its vocal cords were remarkably similar to that of a human being; and yet if that were the case, why couldn’t the chimp speak? This offered further proof for Tyson that the chimp was an intermediary between the higher humans and the lower monkeys:

He can’t discover the difference between the human and the animal in terms of speech in the body, and that then allows him to go back to the older story, which is that humans are different from animals because we have a thing called ‘reason’, which of course you can never find in the body – it’s just a kind of spiritual essence that makes us different. And so the fact that the chimpanzee has vocal cords, yet doesn’t speak, reinforces the status of humans as the speaking creature.

But although one view saw apes and humans as separated by the power of language, not everyone agreed with this. One contemporary theory was that the apes had actually worked out that if they did speak in front of us then we would enslave them; as we had already done with the unfortunate human residents of West Africa.

It’s an amusing story but we shouldn’t be too smug that we no longer treat chimps like this. They may not be drinking gin any more, but children were being taken to see chimpanzees’ ‘tea-parties’ at London Zoo until 1972. And even more recently PG Tips featured chimpanzees dressed up as the Tipps family, voiced by famous comedians from Bob Monkhouse to Peter Sellers, enjoying ‘a lovely cuppa’ in their TV adverts. There was outcry when the campaign finally stopped in 2002. Chimpanzees look so much like us that it’s almost impossible not to turn them into mini-humans.

Even so, there’s no doubt that we’ve come a long way since we first became amused by a pygmy chimp and a pipe-smoking mandrill. Our relationship with our closest wild relatives has taken many twists and turns over the centuries, and is currently undergoing yet another transformation. The scientific focus is now on the interconnectedness of life on earth, but that can be hard to accept when we are so removed from the forests and mountains where many primates live. The media has a big role to play in helping twenty-first-century humanity to accept that we are part of a web of life, not simply a dominant species that can do with the world what it wants, as Richard Sabin explains:

In recent years we have extracted a huge amount of very useful information from people in the field studying primates; we understand more about the way they interact with each other, that their language is quite complex, they have learned behaviours they pass on to their young and then to other groups – how they learn the way we do, and so on.

Yet even as we finally begin to properly understand the lives of our closest relatives, we have paradoxically put them in greater danger than ever before. All six of the great apes are now classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as either endangered or (in the case of the Sumatran orang-utan and western gorilla) critically endangered, with habitat loss, hunting for bushmeat and the spread of disease the greatest threats to their future. After all, if they do disappear, it won’t simply be their loss, but ours too, in Ian Redmond’s view:

The frightening thing is that just as we are beginning to understand and respect non-human primates more we are in danger of losing them, because not everyone has that understanding. The sad fact is that if we succeed in exterminating our closest relatives we will lose, because they are essential to the health of the forest; their salvation is our salvation.

We’ll leave the last word to chimpanzee specialist Charlotte Uhlenbroek, who reveals the wonder she feels as a human, looking straight into the eyes of a great ape when they and their families begin to trust you:

I was always fascinated by what makes us human, and when you’re in the forest with chimpanzees day after day, it gives you a real sense of belonging – of being at home in the world, having your family around you. But more than anything else I feel a wonderful sense of interconnectedness with the natural world.

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I knew that Jaws couldn’t possibly be successful. It was a first novel, and nobody reads first novels. It was a first novel about a fish, so who cares?

Peter Benchley, author of Jaws




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