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Book Review: Planet Without Apes

By (August 23, 2013) No Comment

Planet Without Apesplanet without apes.jpg

By Craig B. Stanford
The Belknap Press (Harvard), 2013

Craig Stanford, co-director of the Jane Goodall Research Center at the University of Southern California, has written a searingly urgent little book about what he sees as the current plight of the non-human great apes in the world today; indeed, Planet Without Apes comes with an endorsement from Goodall herself, saying “In the past fifty years we have learned so much about our closest relatives the great apes … Now it is our turn to help them, and when you read this book, you will realize that we must.”

In reading Stanford’s icily outraged book, it quickly becomes clear that those apes – bonobos, orangutans, chimpanzees, and gorillas – require a great deal of help from humans because they suffer a great deal of harm from humans. They’re kidnapped and sold to zoos and bazaars; they’re driven from their natural habitats by ever-increasing human farming and foresting; they’re poisoned – intentionally and unintentionally – by the noxious effluvia of mankind; and worst of all, they’re now hunted by humans for food:

So now there is a business model. Once the supply and the pipeline are set up, middlemen enter the picture. They agree to buy bushmeat – indeed, they place orders – and then sell it to meat vendors in towns and eventually cities. Flights out of backwater airports have crates and bags of smoked or fresh bloody meat bound for the urban markets of Yaounde, Brazzaville, or Kinshasa. Some have reported great ape meat on the menu, clandestinely, in European restaurants.

Those diners are of course taking greater risks than they imagine, since the savagely intractable diseases of the anthropoid kingdom are a mere chromosome away from speaking directly to human anatomy. Stanford writes vividly about a horrifying strain of the Ebola virus that’s been laying waste to whole groups of chimpanzees and gorillas, for instance, doing more widespread damage than rifles or wire-snares:

As sensational as an Ebola outbreak may seem, it appears to be only the tip of the infectious disease dagger poised over many great ape populations. Great apes have enough threats stacked against them without biological weapons added to the mix. But that is exactly what many populations face. Much evidence indicates that diseases, some with human origins, are playing a significant role in ravaging great ape populations in Africa.

Stanford stresses that what’s lost when those populations are ravaged isn’t just biological diversity – he makes the daring (and morally inevitable) case that it’s not just a wrong but an evil being done:

Extinction of the great apes could not be considered a willful act. It would be an act of great willful ignorance. The extinction of a people is not just about the loss of the members of the society themselves. It’s also about the extinction of a culture, which is ethnocide. And great ape culture is in danger of ethnocide. We have spent much time so far talking about the potential loss of ape gene pools. But with every forest that is cut down, we also lose a culture, as surely as the loss of indigenous people means the destruction of their beliefs, language, and religion and all the contributions they had made to the human family.

This is moving rhetoric, but it’s completely invalidated by one simple, ugly word that permeates Stanford’s book like ground-fog – it’s come up already: bushmeat. The greedy, desperate, opportunistic humans multiplying like locusts all over Africa know now that every game-trail, every highland plateau, every previously untouched jungle recess leads not only to food but to more money in one afternoon than they would otherwise see in ten years. The great apes who managed to survive the diseases those greedy humans expose them to (Stanford’s account of a scabies outbreak in a group of gorillas is particularly heartbreaking) have fallen instead to guns and snares.

Have fallen. That’s the quiet tragedy belying the hope Stanford so stubbornly wants to inject into his subject: he refuses to admit the game is over for the wild great apes of the world. When it comes to the latest census for such entirely surrounded species as mountain gorillas or such delicate, slow-reproducing species as orangutans, Stanford is willing to admit that the numbers are “woefully fuzzy and suspect.” When it comes to the chief threat they face, it’s not something impersonal like climate change – it’s humans who want to kill them for cash, or for their land. These things have a calculus as horrible as it is inexorable, and Stanford’s stubborn hope flies in the face of it.

Good for him.