Saving the Great Apes, Our Closest Living Relatives

Saving the great Apes - Cyril Christo

Saving the Great Apes, Our Closest Living Relatives

“Gorillas are almost altruistic in nature. There’s very little of any ‘me-itis.’ When I get back to civilization I’m always appalled by ‘me, me, me.’ ” —Dian Fossey

PUBLISHED: THE HILL: Changing America by Cyril Christo, Opinion Contributor May 14, 2020


Saving the Great Apes, Our Closest Living Relatives

From poaching to deforestation and palm oil plantations, great apes face many threats.

To see into the eyes of gorillas is to be reminded that “our identity is a dream,” as the remarkable writer Loren Eiseley reminded us. To navigate the brambles, vines and forest to finally lay eyes on these beings is one of the most enthralling and transcendent moments on Earth. Local farmers who raise their crops adjacent to where gorillas live rarely come into contact with this greatest of all the great apes, and most have never seen a gorilla, one of 300 primate species on earth, over half of whom could vanish in our lifetime. It should be very humbling to know that our closest living relatives, chimps, share 98.8 percent of our DNA and gorillas 98.4 percent. Yet as Dian Fossey made brilliantly clear in her legendary study of gorillas, they are “one of the most maligned animals on Earth.

They weren’t always seen as charismatic, these uncanny apes who can reach almost 500 pounds. The prevalent view among Westerners was that they were killers and would attack humans at the slightest provocation.

It was only with Dian Fossey, with her seminal work with gorillas in the 1980s, that that myth was shattered for all time.

Paul de Chaillu in the mid 1850s was perhaps the first white man to see a gorilla in West Africa. In his book “Stories of the Gorilla Country,” de Chaillu writes, “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.”

There was even a time when de Chaillu running out of his Western food had one of his guides hunt a gorilla for food. “I remember that when my gun bearer shot the huge beast the man rushed upon it and tore rather than eat it up, to stifle with its loathed flesh the hunger which was gnawing at their vitals.” Reminiscent of the vivid prose Conrad used to describe the dismemberment of Africa by the European colonizer, de Chaillu also underscored not just the sheer brutality of the gorilla but also how he “longed heartily… for the day to come when the glorious stream will be alive with the splash of paddlewheels and its banks lined with trading and missionary posts.” Accounts of eating our closest kin should give us pause because now we are cannibalizing the entire primate order across the planet.

The mountain gorilla has done well in relative terms since we first saw them 20 years ago when there were about 400 of them. In the early 1980s, little more than 250. Now there are about 1,000.

It is perhaps one of the most remarkable conservation successes of our time. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent to preserve their habitat and increase their population. The rangers in the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda have been among the most dedicated in the world, fending off poachers and dedicating their lives to salvaging along with the chimpanzee, bonobo, and orangutan mankind’s closest living relatives. The steps necessary to save them for posterity needs international care now, more than ever.


Photo credit ©Cyril Christo & Marie Wilkinson

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