Saturday, April 14, 2007

Off to Visit Relatives: Primates

I'm sure baboons are pesky - they are certainly not well liked by the people who live around them. Known to kill dogs and make a mess of vegetable gardens, steal things off clotheslines, and generally interfere with human agendas, I can see how they get a bad reputation. But at the same time, how one can look at baby baboons and not see a teeny hairy human staring back is beyond me. They are strikingly human in their features, their play, and their society. There's no question we are closely related...though even closer to gorillas, and closest of all to chimpanzees.

The truth is that primates are not the most noble or admirable of creatures. All the things that annoy or disgust us about primates are pretty much true of ourselves as well. Chimps are known to have wars and take territory from adjacent chimps, even brutally killing the victims. Primitive animal warfare - not because the territory is needed for some key resource like water, but just because. Chimps are meat eaters, so they do kill smaller primates and other animals from time to time. They can be horribly cruel to each other. They can also be wonderfully smart, inquisitive, gentle, and organized. There have been documented coups where a despotic leader was deposed by a group of underlying chimps getting together and taking him out. It is basically, undeniably, the precourser to our own society.

Gorillas are actually more peaceful than baboons or chimps, keeping to themselves in family groups and being vegetarian except for some grubs and insects now and then for a bit of protein. Yet leave it to us to surround them with myths of violence and aggression. They are very gentle unless their family is threatened. I find it interesting that the first white man to "discover" the mountain gorilla killed it, then started a hunting party to shoot gorillas, and then became overwhelmed at the guilt of killing such human like creatures for no good reason. He lobbied for, and obtained, a sanctuary in the Belgian Congo for gorilla protection. Of course, you know man, as soon as a new thing is discovered there's a big rush on to find ways to kill it and to bring home the "trophy" of the deceased animal one way or another. Though I'd like to think we've evolved beyond that mentality, there are still people who pay big money to go shoot and kill perfectly innocent African animals - bored with killing the ones on their own continents I guess. Sick.

In any event, I am off this week to visit my relatives, the primates. Though I have mixed feelings about this, as I have no great love of humankind and I don't enjoy seeing our baser elements reflected in our forerunners, I can't help being fascinated by our similarities and by the complexities. I pretty much love all animals, even man on a general level, and I certainly will not pass up the once in a lifetime chance to go see the endangered mountain gorilla while they exist.

I will report back on or after May 10th, 2007. If all goes well, I will see gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda, visit the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (intimidating name for hiking, what?), go to Kibali National Forest (supposedly containing over 80 species of primates, wow!), see Ugandan Kob and other various African wildlife, go to Amboseli in Kenya (as it was too dry last time to visit and see anything and it's the one remaining Kenya park I'm dying to see) and then finally visit my favorite park in Kenya, Samburu, to check back on the baby elephant I saw born in the wild 18 months ago. I'm more than a little creeped out about going to Rwanda 13 years after a machete driven genocide...and I struggle to put into words how I feel about that, and our failure to help some of the world's most helpless people in a time of crisis. So, I'll stick to mostly comments on the animals...and hopefully I'll check in with you as soon as I get safely back. As usual, the hardest part will be missing my own pets for a few weeks.

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