International Primate Day

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[ 4 minute read ]

Sia Sin Wei

8 Sept 2018

International Primate Day was established by Animal Defenders International in 2005. Since then, it has been observed by more and more primate organisations around the world. As primates and their conservation are the heart of our work here at the Jane Goodall Institute, we also observe International Primate Day and, this year, we hosted a public film screening and talk at the Red Box.

After a great opening speech by our guest of honour, Dr. Shawn Lum, President of the Nature Society of Singapore, the film screening commenced. The film we selected was the 2016 BBC documentary Koko: The Gorilla Who Talks To People.

For those not familiar with this classic case study in primate cognition, Koko (1971-2018) was a female western lowland gorilla known for learning a large number of hand signs and understanding spoken English. Koko is also notable for having adopted a kitten and creating a name for him – one of the few cases ever recorded of animals having their own pets. The film follows the story of Koko and her main caretaker, Dr. Francine Patterson, from the time Patterson was just a graduate student up to 2016.

Despite the fact that the experiment might not be the most scientifically vigorous in the natural sciences (after all, what kind of reliable experiment would have a sample size of one?), Koko has shown the world how emotional and cognitively capable gorillas can be. We have certainly come a long way from the old-fashioned impression that gorillas are just mindless brutes.

Koko, it must be said, lived in a highly unnatural condition compared to her wild counterparts. While the film documents the attempts of Patterson and her team to enable Koko to lead a normal life by finding a mate and satisfying her nurturing instincts, keeping a sentient animal like a great ape might be seen as unethical. Even Patterson admitted that replicating an experiment like Koko’s in the future is not feasible, as the standards of experimental ethics have become higher. However, with two-thirds of the global population of gorillas now extinct, can we say that Koko’s wild cousins are better off than those in captivity?

Koko has become an ambassador for her species through the publicity generated by her experiments. Her story has made people aware of great apes, and a more aware public is more likely to support conservation efforts. While keeping a single gorilla may be unethical, not raising awareness of gorilla intelligence to combat false stereotypes, of their sensitivity, personality, family structures, and the loss of their homes in the wild is, arguably, even more unethical. Experiments with Koko and other primates have made us think about the nature of humanity and whether great apes should be given rights.

Our newly minted JGIS president, Dr. Andie Ang, gave a talk after the film screening. Andie gave an introduction and overview of JGIS, our projects and operations to the audience, and shared a story from her recent trip to Africa. En route to Nairobi, Kenya for the 27th International Primatological Society Congress, Andie headed to Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda to see the resident population of mountain gorillas. Like Jane Goodall, Louis Leakey sent other young scientific minds to study apes and seek out a better understand human evolution – Dian Fossey was one of these scientists, and she conducted her research and conservation work with the gorillas of Volcanoes National Park for 30 years. It is in her footsteps that Andie tried to follow on this visit.

Before visiting the gorillas, Andie paid US$1500 for a special permit to have access to the area of the park where the gorillas live. This might sound like a steep price to some, but the money is certainly going towards a good cause. Such ecotourism is good for the locals and the gorillas and when the local communities benefit, they are much more likely to support gorilla conservation. While Dian Fossey herself might not approve, this type of win-win solution is indispensable for modern conservation. Today, the gorillas are so much a part of the lives of the local communities that newborn gorillas are even given names in a modified naming ceremony.

After a three hour trek while passing through fields of stinging nettles, Andie and her entourage managed to reach the site where the mountain gorillas are. Being used to humans, they felt comfortable enough with Andie and her merry band of fellow ecotourists to continue with their usual activities undisturbed. For a lucky few in the visitor group, some of the gorillas were even comfortable enough to approach the people at a very close distance. While the whole experience lasted only an hour, it was an incredibly memorable one for Andie.

If you are interested in African primates and conservation, we will be hosting another talk on the chimpanzees of Gombe National Park on the 15 October at the Function Hall of Singapore’s Botanic Gardens. Follow us on Facebook or Instagram for more events like this!