Generations of children have been terrorised by the “reputation” of gorillas, those hulking, black apes that dwelt in darkest Africa and drummed their massive chests before charging up to rend you limb from limb, shrieking and screaming. And then there was the film, King Kong, which showed that gorillas, too, could fall in love with blondes but which made you wonder how monstrously the animals suffered in the making of the movie. By and large, they had a bad press and have been hunted and poached to the brink of extinction.
Actually, all three of the great apes — the gorillas, chimps and orangutans — to which we are more closely related than they would like (with 95-99 per cent similar DNA) remind me of different aspects of ourselves, of our own behaviour and, often, of what they have and we lack. The big silverbacks (all 180 kg of steely, alpha male muscle) have an immense sense of dignity and complete authority, something that world leaders would do well to emulate, but don’t. Gorillas, in general, have shrewd, gentle eyes shimmering with good humour under those massive brows and, despite their bulk, can tickle an infant till it’s giggling hysterically. When the boss loses his temper, of course, all hell breaks loose.
The chimpanzees, with whom we seem to identify the most and are most closely related to (and absurdly dress up and teach to drink, smoke and do drugs), are hyper type-A personalities, ever ready to throw screaming tantrums. Always volatile and bipolar, they (especially the bonobos) are scandalously promiscuous, prone to sudden violence and will plan border raids and wars against neighbouring clans. While hunting, they move as silently as wolves but get hysterically excited when the prey (usually colobus monkeys) is cornered and are merciless in the kill. Prey are ripped apart and eaten and much flattery goes on so the low ranks in the clan can get a bite of the spoils. We’ve been taken in by their smiling, cheery faces and sticking-out ears but their eyes, twinkling with mischief (and malice), are ever appraising, always awaiting the chance to get the better of us.
The solitary, fruit-loving “old men of the forest”, the orangutans of Indonesia and Malaysia are, perhaps, the most irresistible of all. A pair of orphaned baby orangutans (encountered all too often) clutching on to each other, their hair in a mess and gazing out with those huge, eloquent eyes is a sight few (and no girl) can resist. While the gorillas move around like heads of state (should), and the chimps race around screaming as if on speed, the orangutans seem languid and resigned. They’ve had a terrible time and face a bleak future as they are poached, taken for the pet trade and their forests are destroyed and replaced by palm-oil plantations.
Mercifully, all three of the great apes have had their guardian angels, and all have been women, collectively dubbed, “Leakey’s Angels”. Dian Fossey, urged by the anthropologist Dr Louis Leakey, studied the mountain gorillas of the Virunga volcanic cloud forests bordering Rwanda and Congo. She was unharmed by the gorillas — and hacked to death in the middle of the night by poachers — and was laid to rest beside her beloved silverback Digit. Interestingly, the word “gorilla” derived from the Greek “gorillai”, means “tribe of hairy women”. For the chimps it was Jane Goodall, who observed tool making amongst the chimps (so do the other two) and is now campaigning to end the use of these animals in medical research labs (where, needless to say, they are subject to Nazi-like horrors). For the orangutans, it was Birute Galdikas, who spent over 30 years in foetid conditions, and is now involved in the rehabilitation of orphaned orangutans.
While there have been captive breeding programs for the apes in zoos and wildlife parks all over the world, we’re not doing enough to ensure that there is a “wild” to rehabilitate them to. Recently, the country’s only gorilla, listed as one of the world’s critically endangered species, died at a Mysore Zoo.
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By and large, we’ve behaved appallingly and have an insulting attitude towards all three of them. We’ve abused them in literature and cinema. But then, we behave similarly with many of our own kind… and even our own kith and kin. Clearly, we have a long way to go.
And maybe King Kong and company can show us the way.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher. In this column, he reflects on the eccentricities and absurdities of nature