Martha M. Robbins (editor), Christophe Boesch (editor); AMONG AFRICAN APES; University of California Press (Nonfiction: Nature) $29.95 ISBN: 9780520267107
Byline: Justin Courter
This illuminating collection of essays by field biologists, written from the late '90s through the mid-2000s, touches frequently on a disturbing albeit expected topic: the great apes' declining numbers, due to disease transmitted by humans, poaching for the bushmeat trade, and habitat destruction. For example, it "is estimated that between 1998 and 2002, the number of gorillas and chimpanzees in Gabon was reduced by more than half as a result of the combined effects of Ebola and illegal hunting." But what emerges most vividly is the startlingly violent and competitive nature of chimpanzee and gorilla communities, and in contrast, the gentleness of the matriarchal bonobo communities.
Perhaps most distressing is the ordinariness of infanticide. As dominance is passed from one leader to another in a group, the new dominant male will usually kill any members under a couple years of age so that the females will be able to conceive again, and more of the reigning males' genes will be passed on. In the essay "Keeping it in the Family," researcher Josephine Head describes partially witnessing a conflict among chimps, most of which is going on in the branches of the forest canopy and impossible to see. "The last chimpanzee to descend the tree is an adult female, and it appears as though she was the one under attack." Head is relieved that the female is "not badly injured. . . . But then the female chimp stops and picks something up, before immediately turning...