26 December 2003
An emergency United Nations meeting at UNESCO headquarters in Paris in late November warned that urgent measures must be taken to save the world's great apes. Gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans are at risk of extinction in the immediate future or at best, within 50 years.
There is wide agreement among scientists and environmental activists that the loss of these species would be a tragedy for humans, as well. Great apes share more than 96 percent of their DNA with humans. They are our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom. A new book of photographs by primatologist Frans de Waal, who studies the social life of moneys and apes, hopes to raise awareness about the species in order to protect them.
"I've followed a group of monkeys for 10 years," Mr. de Waal said. "Now I have a group of chimps that I [have seen] for 15 years. I see young ones grow up and get older and go through adolescence and become adults and sometimes become the alpha male or the alpha female. I have followed them basically like a soap opera."
Frans de Waal heads the Living Links Center for the Advanced Study of Ape and Human Evolution at Emory University in Atlanta. He is always ready with a camera to document primate social behavior.
"Who fights with whom, what do they do afterwards, who dominates who, who plays with whom, the play behavior. So, you get the political dynamics," he said. "If I would do it for your family, I would probably say that, 'This person is always obnoxious and that person is always trying to soothe things over and this one is sulking in the corner and never saying anything, classifying the members of the family."
Frans de Waal has observed monkeys and apes in zoos, research parks and in field settings. During his career he has taken 50,000 pictures, 122 of which are included in My Family Album: Thirty Years of Primate Photography.
"I look for the most surprising pictures. I wanted to surprise people," he said. "There is picture there of chimps catching tea. They are standing there with their mouth open and I am sending tea from upstairs to their mouths basically. 'High Tea' I call it. And, I thought this was an amusing picture because we had noticed in the zoo where I worked that the chimps loved tea. And we had noticed that by accident because we had always made tea in the afternoon and emptied the teapot out in the enclosure.
One day the chimps were around there and clearly very interested, and from that day on we would empty it very slowly and the chimps would gather and all get a little sip from the teapot. And the tea would be spreading over them like a shower because it would be from very high up that we [would send it.]"
The photographs in My Family Album capture surprisingly subtle gestures and complex facial expressions that clearly show personality, emotion and connection.
de Waal: In this picture you see between two apes, actually two bonobos, you see one male looking straight in the eyes of a female. And, this is to show that this kind of eye contact that they have with us, but it is something that they do among themselves as well.
Skirble: You say eyes are the most expressive part of an ape's face and a window into its soul.
de Waal: Yes, you can see in the eyes just as with people. You can see if they are in a good mood or a bad mood, a tense mood. Actually we did experiments in that. We have chimps [that] use joysticks with computers. And they can recognize faces on a computer screen. One of my students did experiments where the eyes were blocked out to see if they could still recognize individuals. And the eyes are the most sensitive part, really. You can block out the mouth, the ears or the nose. That doesn't bother them so much. But the eyes [blocked out] make it very hard for them to recognize faces. I am sure it is the same for people."
Skirble: I find this picture, you have titled it 'Ropewalker.' [The ape] has such agility, such beauty. Could you describe this for me.
de Waal: This is a bonobo female at the San Diego zoo. She is walking over a rope. That [experience] by itself is not so special. There are people who can walk over ropes. But the beauty of this is that she is so at ease that she is eating something while she is doing it. She can also do something that we humans can not do. She can grab the rope with her feet. But you see how she is completely relaxed and even though the rope is not very tight, she is walking gradually over that rope. She can actually stand still on it. I have seen them stand still on the rope.
Skirble:You write: 'Kevin is a real gentleman, always considerate of others, never mean nor demanding and generous and gentle.' This is the kind of comment every parent would like to read on his or her child's report card!"
de Waal: Not every bonobo is like that. These comments are based on comparisons of individuals. I know very obnoxious bonobos, and I know very aggressive bonobos and very difficult ones, but Kevin is one who is always in a good mood, always friendly with everybody. He doesn't live anymore. Unfortunately he died too early. But he was one of the gentlest males I have ever known in that species.
Skirble: What does the picture say to you?"
de Waal: The picture I have taken to some degree to show his enormous hands. You see how long his hand is. They are very elegantly built, the bonobos, much more so than the chimpanzee. And, they have these piano player hands, very long and very elegant, and I wanted to show how his hands are even longer than his face. But the picture also shows I think very well how he has a very gentle face and so it fits that description that I give."
Skirble: He is so relaxed in this picture. How were you able to capture him so close, so relaxed and in such a natural dare I say man-like pose?
de Waal: If you work with these animals like I do, they will not mind that you take pictures because we have animals, for example one chimpanzee female and if a stranger aims a camera at her, she dives behind something. She disappears or she slams her arm over her face. She doesn't want to be photographed. And, since I work with these animals every day they don't mind that I aim a camera at them and they remain extremely relaxed. So there are many pictures in here of primates looking straight into the camera because they are very relaxed about it.
Skirble: They are portraits.
de Waal: Yes.
Skirble: I know you had to go from 50,000 photographs to 122 for the book. Do you have a favorite?
de Waal: That is very hard to say. There is one photograph that has more of an emotional impact for me because I raised this baby chimp for a couple of weeks. We took it away from its mom because [she] was deaf and not taking care of it very well. We took it away and bottle fed it and decided to train an adult female to raise that baby with a bottle. So, this is the photo where we had handed the baby to the female. We had put it in the straw. She didn't want to take the baby because it was ours. A female caretaker Monica and I had raised the baby and [the chimp] didn't want to touch the baby.
She came to us and begged and we kissed her and said, 'Go get the baby' and it was only after a couple of minutes that she dared to touch the baby. And, once she had taken it she started to bottle feed it herself. We had trained her to do that, and it became her baby at that point.
Skirble:What do these portraits tell us who were are as humans?
de Waal: Well I think that since we can relate so easily to all the portraits and photos that you see, what I hope that it conveys is how close we are. People often think they are something else than primates, but of course we are basically primates. That's what I want to show in this book to some degree.
Frans de Waal also hopes that the photographs in My Family Album lead to action to help the great apes, which he says face extinction in the next 50 years without urgent steps now to protect them.