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Ashley Leiman OBE, director of the Orangutan Foundation, explores the complex relationship between man and our closest relatives – the great apes

The Biologist Vol 61(2) p12-16

The great apes are often perceived differently to other animals. In many cases, it's the simple physical resemblance – we look alike – that's enough to affect how people think and feel about them. No other group of animal has the same attributes that strike a chord with people: hands with nails, eyes that mirror our own, and rich social and emotional lives. Despite this, the 21st century may see the extinction of one of mankind's closest living relatives.

Our scientific and cultural understanding of the great apes is unprecedented, yet they're more threatened than ever. In a recent survey, 96% of great ape populations in Africa and Asia were found to be declining inside protected areas (Marshall et al., 2000). In less than a generation, modern Homo sapiens might wipe out the orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus and P. abelii), species that watched as Java Man (Homo erectus erectus) walked into Asia.

These animals are now familiar, through scientific research and sustained media interest, but they've always affected us. In the Rwandan Kinyarwanda language, the word for primates is in a separate category to the word for other wildlife. In Japan, the monkey is the only animal addressed with the honorific 'san', the form of address used for humans. And the name orangutan in Malay means 'person of the forest'.

But there are two sides to our perception of apes. While one side emphasises the similarities, the other side emphasises the differences, how the apes are almost but not quite human. This duality occurs across the world, but is perhaps strongest in the west.

In 300BC, Aristotle classified the then-known primates noting, "they shared the properties of man". Subsequently, the Romans described 'ape cities', near Carthage and elsewhere on the North African coast. The first European record of what were undeniably the great apes appeared in Pigafetta's Description of the Kingdom of the Congo, written in 1598. Pigafetta records a Portuguese sailor, Eduardo Lopez, as saying "on the banks of the Zaire, there are a multitude of apes" but added somewhat disparagingly "[they] afford great delight to the nobles by imitating human gestures" (Huxley, 1894). The verb 'to ape' entered our lexicon.

Over the following 150 years, the great apes gradually became more widely recognised. In 1735, when Carl Linnaeus published Systema Naturae, his groundbreaking attempt at classifying all living beings, he placed man and apes together in the order Anthropomorpha.

Yet the early naturalists, despite the apes' human-like appearance, still felt they could shoot them just like any other potential museum specimen. Perhaps the Christian view that God gave man dominion over all living things (Genesis 1:28) has coloured much of Europe's perception of the great apes.

During the 18th and later centuries, more apes were collected and brought back to Europe, to be kept in private menageries and zoos, or displayed in circuses, music halls and the like when alive, and dissected when dead. Not even the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 could shake the view that despite the common ancestry, apes were merely animals.

Long term field studies, particularly those exploring human origins, have changed how the apes are regarded. Scientific research has vastly increased our knowledge and the associated media interest has made the great apes more popular. At the same time as field studies were teaching us about the ecology, behaviour and society of wild apes, captive and laboratory studies were giving us an insight into their minds. The captive studies, particularly those using language – each of the apes was taught a sign language – increasingly showed the apes to be sentient, self-aware beings. Meanwhile, genetic research proved the case for a common ancestor and made people reconsider our 'family tree'.

Poor-relations-orangutan-medicalA rescue orangutan receives a medical examination

Exploiting their exploits

Despite this, the use and abuse of apes has continued. The role of clown, impersonating people in a comic fashion, has persisted for the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) and the orangutan, still portrayed in films and commercials as tragic mockeries of human beings. As substitutes for people, chimpanzees have been shot into space, and in the case of biomedical experiments, we have used an endangered species to help a non-endangered one. They're regarded as almost human, but with no human rights.

We exploit the great apes for their human qualities, but deny them the protection and respect that those very same qualities should deserve.

Increasing scientific awareness has, however, led to greater recognition of the apes' status. Campaigners' calls for an end to the use of apes by the entertainment industries came to a head in October 2003, when Jane Goodall and The Chimpanzee Collaboratory challenged the big studios in Hollywood to cease using trained apes. The British Government has for some time prohibited the use of great apes in medical experiments because of ethical concerns, and New Zealand and Sweden have similar laws.

The legal status of apes is the focus of The Great Ape Project (Cavalieri & Singer, 1993), an international organisation of primatologists, anthropologists, ethicists and others who advocate giving basic legal rights to great apes. These changes have occurred mainly in the west.

Perhaps a more important question, in terms of conservation, surrounds the perception of the apes by their indigenous human neighbours and how it has changed throughout history. From the earliest times, people have held a peculiar fascination for the primates that shared their environment. The figure of a monkey, over 100m long, was included in the Nazca Lines in Peru, carved some 2,000 years ago. The ancient Egyptians worshipped the ape-god Thoth, guarder of the moon, measurer of time and scribe to the gods. The hamadryas baboon (Papio hamadryas) was also sacred. In Japanese writing, monkeys appear as deities, as a mediator between humans and the gods, and were even incorporated into Buddhism as the three wise monkeys (hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil).

Elsewhere in Africa, chimpanzee and gorilla meat were (and still are) eaten as symbols of power and virility, while some African tribes regard apes more as neighbouring tribes than animals. The orangutan was considered one of the many forms of the Iban war spirit. As well as power, much indigenous folklore also emphasises the apes' closeness to humans.

Tipping point

The conservation crisis facing the great apes has arisen in the last 50 years and has become acute in the last 20. It isn't coincidental that this time period is that of post colonial adjustment in the ape habitat countries, alongside the inexorable expansion of western economies, and the promotion of essentially democratic, free market economic models. The combination of these two forces – demand from an international community and internal, domestic changes in society – coupled with the rapid growth of the human population, has fundamentally altered attitudes to nature and, indeed, life.

The major threats to the great apes are from habitat loss and hunting, in turn caused by low levels of environmental education, under resourced environmental management, weak rule of law, population pressure and poverty.

There are some parts of Africa and Asia where traditional prohibitions against killing the great apes remain. In Sarawak, east Malaysia, the Iban don't hunt the orangutan, although many other species have been almost totally extirpated locally. Similarly, in the Mbulu region of South West Cameroon, the local people have traditionally never hunted gorillas out of respect for their similarity to humans, as well as possibly more symbolic/totemic reasons. However, in many other areas, the taboos and traditional practices have broken down. Across the border in south east Nigeria, hunting has been added to farming, casual labour and palm tapping as one of a number of subsistence activities undertaken by most young men.

Peterson (2003) describes it as "exchanging the wealth of a cash economy (by bringing in big development), for the wealth of a subsistence economy (by removing biodiversity). In contemporary Africa, the spread of market forces...have begun to disassociate many African people from earlier belief systems...consequently tribal values of conserving and respecting non-human life have eroded."

In no way do I suggest that traditional societies should be locked in their present or a previous state, nor do I wish to be cast as anti-development. The point is that what's usually thought of as development may not help the truly disadvantaged, often because the transition from subsistence to market economy is prolonged, which in itself imposes economic hardships, and 'development' frequently degrades the natural environment.

In keeping with the economisation of thinking, the apes are faring best in those areas where they're seen as an asset. After two decades of tourism development, and despite the horrors of the 1994 genocide, the mountain gorillas in Rwanda are regarded as being of national value. Indeed, the case of the mountain gorilla is arguably the best example of where ecotourism has saved a species. In both Rwanda and Uganda, gorillas, and latterly chimpanzees, have become sources of national pride. They bring in hard currency, generate employment and, consequently, are demonstrably worth protecting.

However, what happens in a country such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where tourism is unlikely to start for a very long time and even research projects have had to be abandoned? Or for species such as the orangutan that are difficult to observe in the wild? In the DRC, bonobos (Pan paniscus) almost certainly have more value as bushmeat than as a living being. Similarly, the orangutan is frequently perceived as being of little value elsewhere, or sometimes even a threat to income generation – from oil palm plantations, for example.

More resilient than traditional taboos, formalised religion has provided some stasis where it has a prescribed attitude to the apes. In Muslim societies, the great apes can't be eaten, which has afforded them some protection in parts of Africa where hunting for bushmeat might otherwise have been rampant. Christianity has provided less protection.

Missing conservation link

Compared with other species of conservation concern such as elephants, whales, rhinoceros or tigers, comparatively little attention has been paid to the great apes until recently. The human kinship link has counted for very little – perhaps we aren't comfortable with their humanness after all.

It's easier to feel a benevolent concern for rather more distant species. Or perhaps it was simply reluctance to face a problem, especially with bushmeat, when the problem concerned eating our animal relatives and so any move to stop it would have to involve affecting people's right to eat what they choose. With the real or supposed spectre of neo-colonialism surrounding western-funded conservation activities in the developing world, many otherwise active groups simply didn't want to tackle the issue.

The biggest change in the west's relationship with the great apes has therefore been the shift in attitude from considering how they're like us, through how we're like them, to today's realisation that we have a responsibility for them.

No one is deliberately trying to wipe out the great apes. The present situation shows little more than a lack of care, both nationally and internationally. This is the point where western and indigenous attitudes to the great apes intersect. The fate of the apes rests finally with the inhabitants of ape-habitat countries, be they individuals, communities or governments. However, the west or developed world has a duty of care, for it's the western world order (and its demand for products and raw materials from ape habitats) that has given rise to so many of the problems the apes face.

"As long as they [apes] are able to roam the earth, hooting, leaping, munching, breaking branches, beating their chests, or simply sitting gazing quietly into the sunset, they will act as a perpetual and vital reminder that we are, after all, little more than brainy, naked apes." (Morris & Morris, 1966).

Protecting the great apes – Potential strategies

While the notion of 'affinity' with the great apes has made it easier to mobilise resources in the west, the challenge remains to effect protection in the range countries.

It may be more appropriate to focus on the apes' intelligence, role in the ecosystem or the simple fact that they're endangered and may be lost forever. What's important is to make the message relevant to the audience.

Science's avoidance of anthropomorphism (attributing human feelings to animals) was finally overcome by the numerous examples of behavioural, social and even emotional equivalence between the apes and ourselves, pioneered by Jane Goodall in the 1960s. Their maternal bonds, altruism, political manoeuvring, humour and grief are all human traits. In the modern context, this is how kinship could help the apes. The similarities between us and them allow conservationists to draw attention to them, can help make people perceive them as special, and thereby increase respect and concern for their plight.

In a pilot study in western Cameroon, for example, villagers were told, in the local language, the story of Koko, a famous gorilla who communicates with people via sign language. Koko once asked to be given a kitten, which she adored and treated as we would a pet. In the village, this story was used as a starting point for discussions about gorillas, particularly whether it's right that they should be killed and eaten. The results were encouraging. The villagers had not expected a gorilla to behave in this way and two hunters even volunteered go to other villages and tell the story of Koko (Rita Lysinge et al., 2002).

Ashley Leiman OBE FSB is the director of the Orangutan Foundation, which she founded in 1990. Leiman has been involved in conservation in Asia for over 30 years. In 2006, she was appointed OBE for her services to orangutan conservation.

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