Friday, March 16, 2012

What's In A Name?

“All humans are exactly equally close cousins to all gorillas.” - Richard Dawkins
Last week researchers at Cambridge University announced they had deciphered the genetic code of the gorilla, the penultimate Great Ape genome sequence to be completed (they’re still working on the bonobo’s). The findings will shed important new light on the human condition. 

Richard Durbin of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, who led the study, said, "I'd like to think that in the next 20 or 30 years we will get a deeper understanding of what happened genetically in our evolutionary history, and of how those genes affect the brain and other properties that make us modern humans." 

It turns out that, although on average humans are closer to chimps, 15% of our genome is closer to that of the gorilla than the chimpanzee, including a gene that enables us and the gorillas to hear better than other apes. 

At last, we’re beginning to see the forest for all the phylogenetic trees. We’re now one step closer to understanding how we came to stand upright and think great thoughts.

Ten million years ago the common ancestor of humans and gorillas made her night nest in the Congo River Basin. She may have been bipedal and even more humanoid than gorillas: something akin to a “Humarilla.” There is no fossil evidence to prove her existence because her bones could not sustain the ravages of deep forest acidity that disintegrated them over time, leaving us speculating about this crucial period in human history.

What we do know is that towards the middle of the Late Miocene, Africa’s equatorial jungles contracted and our arboreal existence soon gave way to stomping the terra - the start of the hominid migration to the savannah. The fossil evidence in and around the Rift Valley at sites like Odupai, Lake Turkana and Awash confirms this.  

Either the gorillas chose to remain in the forests or returned after an unsuccessful bout on the plaines. We may never know. But presently all the sub-species of both the Eastern and Western gorilla - Gorilla gorilla gorilla, Gorilla gorilla diehli, Gorilla beringei graueri, and Gorilla beringei beringei - can be found in a band of equatorial forest in Africa, between the Bight of Bonny in the west and the Albertine Rift in east. The area encompasses ten gorilla range states: Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Angola, the two Congo republics, Rwanda, and Uganda. 
What Do They Call This Place?
It occurred to me that the gorillas might benefit from having one name to describe the region in which they range. Many place names in Africa have been changed more than once throughout history. The tendency of European explorers to name the landmarks they “discovered” after their own royalty was understandably loathsome to the locals, as was the tendency of post-colonial dictators to name them after themselves. 

Following independence new names were given to many lakes and towns, honouring African heroes and history. Changing Murchison Falls to Kabalega Falls, for instance, transfered the eponym from a Royal Geographic Society director who had never even visited the continent (yet considered it a tedious place to explore) to the Bunyoro King who fought the British back across the Nile.

The Bantu convention for place names is to use a U as the prefix. On that account the land of the gorillas would be Ugorilla. But adhering to this convention is too anthropocentric and, for a population of apes, too contentious. Indeed, many traditional African legends regard their local apes as humans who fell from grace, and this folklore remains ingrained in their cultures today, even amongst the diaspora. 

Furthermore, this misconception harks back to European explorers who regarded the native people of the forests as closer to chimpanzees and gorillas than to themselves. “This is not only factually wrong,” says geneticist Richard Dawkins, “it violates a fundamental principle of evolution. A pair of cousins are always exactly equally related to any outgroup, because they are connected to that outgroup via a shared common ancestor.” 

It’s not an easy concept to grasp, the cladistic fact that gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans are not sufficiently different from us (we share 98% of our genetic makeup with gorillas) to warrant exclusion from the charmed circle in which we place the human species. 

Racism was endemic in our culture late into the twentieth century but it is now mitigated by the knowledge that all human beings originated in Africa. So too will speciesism decline as we come to understand that we are all in fact African apes. 
I chose Gorillaland for the title of my debut novel because it recalls the Golden Age of African adventure, and acknowledges the original ape inhabitants of its setting, in the deep forest that was once the limit of the known universe.

As far as I can tell, references to a “gorilla land” have been made three times in the past. The first time was in 1876, when Sir Richard Burton published a two-volume account of his explorations along the West Africa coast during his governorship of Fernando Po, entitled Two trips to gorilla land and the cataracts of the Congo. Twenty years later, it was again used in the title of a Frank Merrywell adventure, in which the upright American college boy goes hunting ape and searching for the missing link in Africa. It last appeared in 1940, in a Fantoman comic, as the name of a place not unlike the Congo jungle where one Professor Wright leads an expedition to communicate with large, intelligent gorillas. 

Hollywood was once in love with Gorillaland. Following the release of King Kong in 1933, gorillas, cannibals and the Congo jungle became hot box office topics. In the 1930s, 40s and 50s the name Congo appears in no less than a dozen feature film titles. So, what happened? 

While I was researching my book I stumbled on an interesting inconsistency. In the six years between 1958 and 1964 TIME magazine published five cover articles featuring Africa’s emerging sub-Saharan leaders, Sekou Toure, Tom Mboya, Abubakar Balewa, Moishe Tshombe and Julius Nyerere. But in the twenty six years that followed, they published only two: General Ojukwe, the leader of the Biafran rebellion, and Idi Amin, Uganda’s dictator. The reason for this is the 4th December 1964 issue featuring American missionary Dr Paul Carlson on the cover. He was murdered during the Simba Rebellion along with, it would seem, America’s enthusasm for the Congo.

Since independence the Congo has undergone a series of armed struggles and civil wars, resulting in the largest casualty numbers anywhere since World War II. It’s no coincidence that human conflict has surrounded the gorillas, especially the Mountain gorillas. Their habitats are located in some of the most fertile regions on the continent which are, as a result, the most densely populated.  

I am a gorillaphile (strictly platonic, I can assure you), the result of a career in gorilla conservation spanning two decades that took an immense toll on my life and steered me in directions I could never have foreseen. I consider myself an honorary ambassador to gorillas, and that it is my destiny in life to inspire empathy for their plight. 

But the award-winning conservation programme I helped design was about community-based initiatives for people, not gorillas. This was deliberate. We knew the best way to ensure the gorillas’ survival was to engender support among the desperately poor, war-ravaged people living adjacent to their habitats, and the only way we could achieve that was to demonstrate the value of gorilla conservation in real terms to those people. 

All our efforts were channeled into projects that sought to provide direct support to their communities, through micro-credit, agro-forestry, beekeeping and education, to name but a few, as alternative livelihoods to those that were destroying gorilla habitats. It was a plodding, long-term approach but the only one that made any sense. The population of Mountain gorillas has risen by 20% in the last two decades.
Between Apes and Angels
Gorillaland is also a state of mind. There is untold magic in those forests. I can remember once trekking through the Congo side of the Virungas. My friends Popol and Gapira were taking me to see a group whose incumbent silverback had recently been shot and killed by soldiers. Uniquely, a wild, un-habituated, ex-lone silverback had subsequently assumed leadership of what was a group of habituated gorillas (familiar to human presence). 

As we approached he became quite agitated and refused to allow us any closer, yet he could not convince the other gorillas to flee. He screamed and beat his chest and thrashed about the vegetation like a demon. Eventually we gave up our pursuit and sat down in a dried-up riverbed, a sunny, meandering rift through the otherwise pristine afro-montane forest. All at once the gorillas began to emerge from the trees and cross the riverbed, just a few metres ahead of us,: large, black, shaggy, charismatic mammals that moved silently and stoically like shadows. They wanted to see us. It was the very first time that I felt their kinship.

Ultimately, my experiences with gorillas allowed me to realise my dream of becoming a published author, which had consumed me since before I began working for them. In many ways Gorillaland wrote me. Accordingly, as a show of thanks to my hairy forest cousins who gave me a worthy vocation throughout my adult life, and the setting for a damn good yarn, I pledge to donate 10% of the my earnings from the book to protect gorillas in the wild

It’s even more personal now; I just found out my father may have dementia. One genetic difference that’s come up in the gorilla genome is the mutation that results in dementia in humans, but leaves gorillas completely unaffected by the condition. Hopefully, with these new studies, they’ll find a quick cure, in my dad’s lifetime. Short of that, relief is on its way to so many others who suffer. What is clear is that the welfare of the human race is in no small way dependent on the survival of gorillas. Welcome to Gorillaland!