For this article I have decided to delve into the controversial topic of keeping our closest animal relatives alive. I try my best to remain unbiased and in terms of conservation, we should try to conserve all animals. However, primates, and the great apes in particular, are my favourite animals. As you have now been introduced to me as an author I also thought it was fitting to discuss what fuels my conservation fire. What prompted me to choose now to discuss them is the announcement that the Grauer’s Gorilla Gorilla beringei graueri is now critically endangered, meaning it joins on that list its fellow Gorilla relatives, Sumatran Pongo abelii and Bornean orangutans P. pygmaeus.
Visiting the great apes in a zoo setting is always a favourite thing for me to do but it is always tinged with sadness. Maybe because it reminds me of how their relatives in the wild are disappearing but I think mostly it’s because they seem too human-like to be in an enclosure. However, that is just me speculating; I have observed behind the scenes and many great apes live a fulfilled life in captivity. Like most zoo animals they receive food regularly, a warm and dry place to sleep, and enrichment to keep them occupied.
Keepers often report that visitors tell them that their orangutans look sad and their chimps Pan spp. are smiling. This is in fact untrue as other apes do not share the same facial expressions as we do, but, it is also a strange phenomenon that even people whose only interaction with animals is a day at the zoo can feel emotionally connected to these apes. Although visitors constantly make comments about the state of an animal’s appearance it is rare that individual emotional states are mentioned. I myself have stood in a crowd and heard words like ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘angry’ and ‘bored’ being associated with apes but rarely in such depth elsewhere in the zoo.
I may be drawing too much from this but could it be possible that our innate responses take over when faced with our closest relatives? Why is it that they draw such large crowds at the zoo? Zoos themselves will admit that the birth of great apes always draws a crowd and they have been used on many promotional campaigns. I understand that fascination, I still remember the day, on my annual trip to Belfast Zoo when my mum asked if I wanted anything from the gift shop and I said no at first but then turned sheepishly and said ‘maybe an orangutan’. So I picked out the one I liked most and it still remains in my room to this day. There are no orangutans at Belfast Zoo but from that day my fascination continued to grow and is probably partly the reason why I am where I am today.
These apes have the power to resonate with visitors but the resonation needs to ring clear enough that action will be taken. The controversy surrounding Harambe the Western Lowland Gorilla Gorilla gorilla gorilla has spread far and wide. This links into my previous article and the ability that social media has given to all, to have a voice. Freedom of speech is a wonderful concept but sometimes too many clashing opinions mean that often no conclusion is reached. I find it aggravating that so many million comments have been made about that event but few used it as an opportunity to share the plight of Harambe’s counterparts in the wild. However, this is the reality conservationists face; that visitors will complain if an animal does not ‘perform’ in a way that allows them to have their day out. Even today there is still a missing link; despite mass losses of these animals many humans remain unaware. I ask myself how that can be but then I remember that I follow news outlets that specifically report on the status of these animals and I realise that in some ways the volume of information that we have access to can be detrimental. In some ways the internet provides too much choice and without targeted media the ironic thing is that people still won’t know the true circumstances. It comes down to, again and I have made this point in all three of my articles, that we must find a way to make people see how the loss of an orangutan in southeast Asia or a gorilla in Africa affects THEM. It is a selfish and anthropomorphic centred view but perhaps necessary in this current state.
For the purposes of mass media maybe we have to take the focus away from the individual animal in order to capture attention. Focus not on the orangutan but on the fact that deforestation in their native home means losing the trees that provide the substances used to make pharmaceutical drugs; distributed globally. I would suggest using the approach of global warming and how losing trees will increase CO₂ but even that somehow falls on deaf ears in many cases. Nor can the argument of what the local people lose be included as an argument. Unfortunately in my view it has to be a western centred approach, something that will actually resonate, something that threatens the lifestyle we are accustomed to. Continued destruction of gorilla’s habitat and collection of bush meat draws them closer and closer to humans making a widespread outbreak of Ebola perhaps even more likely. To broaden this to all primates If we were to lose them then all testing of drugs, cosmetics , therapies (both good and bad) would have to be done on human subjects or not at all. Primates have been the long suffering models for human health. If they are wiped from the planet then people will have to have needles jammed in their body and suffer potentially toxic and painful side effects. I think that if these effects were more widely publicised then people might sit up and listen.
“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it”