Among African Apes

Among African Apes is a book edited by primatologists Martha M. Robbins and Christophe Boesch and it is a refreshing and necessary addition to the popular scientific literature.  This book attempts to help those unfamiliar with the great apes and the academics that study them by focusing on the experience of studying gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos in the wild.  Robbins and Boesch contribute extensively to this work, although they do invite other accomplished primatologists to share their stories and experiences.  Essentially this book attempts to give the reader a feel for what it would be like to be a primatologist.  It gives the reader a sense of what motivates and intrigues primatologists, and in the process it allows the reader to get a deeper insight into the methodological process employed by primatologists, and hopefully, a newfound respect for the animals they study.

You will notice in the title that this book is actually not focused on all great ape researchers and great apes, but rather an in-depth look at the researchers that study the great apes of Africa.  So for anyone that specifically wants to learn more about orangutans and the researchers that study them, this book may not be for you.  However, focusing on the African apes was done purposefully because it allowed this edited work to have a tighter conceptual focus and address the issues that specifically affect the lives of researchers in Africa and the problems facing the future survival of the apes that live there.

The main narrative of the book is meant to be subjective and colloquial, as opposed to exploring the subject with a highly technical and scientific approach (which you can read in any primatology research article).  With chapters that more closely resemble a daily journal entry than a typical research article, the authors successfully make very complex issues and research problems accessible to readers who do not necessarily need to have a background in primatology.  The book transports you to the jungles of Africa and introduces you to the animals they study as individuals with personalities.  Using this narrative approach enables them to explore the personal and moral hardships that are inevitable while studying our closest ancestors and working in African rainforests.

The diversity of authors and perspectives always keeps the book interesting and engaging.  There are several stories throughout the book that explore ‘first encounters’ with chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas that have never been studied by humans before and have possibly never encountered humans before.  Clive Hicks documents his experience attempting to find the Bili chimps, a population of chimpanzees that had been rumoured to hunt leopards, not fear humans and hybridize with gorillas; Gottfried Hohmann and Barbara Fruth explore the psychological dimensions of observing bonobos for the first time and re-conceptualizing this species after realizing the inaccuracy and simplicity of the stereotypes perpetuated about them by primatologists and the popular press a-like; Josephine Head dissects her psychological evolution as a researcher as she observed intercommunity ‘tribal war’ and infanticide in chimpanzees; Martha Robbins reveals the differences between successful male gorillas who acquire harems and unsuccessful male gorillas who spend years in isolation; Christophe Boesch focuses on the moral dimensions of being a primatologist and understanding the risks the great apes face from disease transmission, hunting and deforestation.  Several other primatologists discuss the habituation process and reveal their thoughts in the field as they made some of the most extraordinary discoveries about our closest relatives.

Each author also introduces a major subject area within primatology, which is sectioned off within the middle of the journal-like main narrative.  These areas are always conceptually related to the main theme of the journal narrative.  For example, Boesch focuses on disease transmission and hunting, Hicks describes population census methodology, Crickette Sanz and David Morgan explain cultural traditions, Chloe Cipolletta investigates the habituation process.  Throughout the book these are exceptionally useful sections that conveniently summarize some of the most interesting and useful facts about the subject and why they are important to understand in relation to the narrative of their entry.

Among African Apes is a phenomenal and succinct book that introduces our closest ancestors and the researchers who conduct their research with both passion and professionalism.  For anyone who has always been fascinated in primatology or is interested in getting involved in primate field studies this is a wonderful introduction to the research world.  It can provide you with a better understanding of what primatologists do in the field and how they collect data and learn about elusive, critically endangered, social animals that are infinitely complex and face a myriad of problems.

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About Cadell Last
Hello. I'm probably drinking coffee and reading.

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