At a chimpanzee’s enclosure in any Indian zoo, young men are found hooting, shrieking, pulling faces and offering the chimps cigarettes and even bits of broken bottles. It’s difficult to tell who the real chimpanzees are. That’s how closely related we are to the great apes. Back in the very old bad days, a highlight of any circus act was the chimpanzee tea party where the chimps would end up throwing tea cups at each other and shriek much like what happens in the hallowed halls where the laws of the nation are framed.
Of the 13 species of apes in the world (excluding us), four are the “great” apes, the others, “lesser” apes, a distinction made solely on the basis of size. Three of the former are found in Africa and one in the rainforests of Southeast Asia – which is also the realm of the lesser apes.
The granddaddy of them all is the gorilla — a glowering, frowning giant with the gentlest eyes imaginable. Our behaviour towards them (and other great apes) has been horrendous and shameful: they’ve been poached, driven from their jungles, trapped for the pet trade and zoos (babies are taken after shooting the mothers) and starred in hideous films. Thankfully, they had mentors, needless to say, who were women. The late Dian Fossey inveigled herself into gorilla clans in the Virunga Forests of the Congo living there for decades before she was murdered for the protection she tried giving animals, lying buried next to her favourite, Digit, a giant silverback killed by poachers.
Gorilla families are ruled by a grand silverback, who maintains order and discipline with firmness and dignity. He has his harem and his young guns are quickly shown their place by chest-thumping and mock charging. There can be trouble, though, when an outsider silverback – equal in weight and size, tries to take over as head honcho.
Except when babies, gorillas don’t usually throw tantrums, they’re just too big and dignified for that. The leaf-eating vegetarians move as slowly and silently as smoke through their habitat. Big daddy silverbacks (the hair in the middle of their backs is silver) occasionally indulge their babies, which is why there was such an uproar when Harambe, the captive silverback in the Cincinnati zoo, was shot in 2016 when a toddler fell into his enclosure. The jury is out on whether the animal was just checking out the unconscious child or about to harm him. Gorillas are having a hard time surviving in the wild, and several zoos (like in Jersey and San Diego) have captive-breeding programmes for them.
Our closest cousins, however, are the chimpanzees — and they’ve paid the price for it in medical laboratories. Jane Goodall has studied them for over 60 years (she first discovered their tool-making prowess) and now spends her time espousing their cause. Sure, toddler chimps are cute, laugh hysterically when tickled, and very, very smart. But adults are prone to shrieking temper tantrums, and young studs throw around their weight (and whatever’s at hand). Chiefly vegetarian, they do occasionally indulge in hunting monkeys and other small animals, and to see the way a party of males sets out on a hunt is truly chilling. Having torn a kill (say, a colobus monkey) to shreds, the alpha male may distribute the meat among his acolytes.
While the common chimpanzee is highly strung, and groups will often go to war with one another, they have a smaller relative, the bonobo, which believes in (very) free love above all! These hippie chimps keep the peace by making love as often as they can, caring two hoots about the exclusivity of partners.
The “old men of the forest” — orangutans of Borneo and Sumatra and the Indonesian islands — too, have a mentor in a Dutch lady, Birute Galdikas, and they too have suffered hideously at our hands. These gentle-eyed, rust-coloured apes are hugely shrewd, spending more time in the trees than any of the others. Long ago, I fell for a doe-eyed orangutan called Pinky at the Delhi Zoo. We met when she was taking a walk: she twined her arms around my legs and looked up at me with those soulful eyes. Upsetting her would be foolish because the strength in those arms could easily snap both my legs as if they were matchsticks. Appalled by this budding romance, her keeper hastened her away and I never saw her again.
On another visit, the ringing cries of the hoolock gibbon — hoola-hoola-hoola — rising to a crescendo welcomed me. The gibbons (all nine species) are the “lesser” apes — and our very own hoolock is found in the Northeastern rainforests. They swing (brachiate) like trapeze artistes and, every morning and evening, the gents and ladies will sing, each protecting its partner from covetous eyes. These swinging singers are also losing out to rampant habitat destruction. If you’re down in the dumps, listen to the gibbons’ song and you’ll be up swinging with them!
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