Dr. Stanford is chair of the Anthropology and Biological Sciences Departments at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California. He is a co-director of the Jane Goodall Research Center and Director of the Bwindi Impenetrable Great Ape Project.
Topics in this interview include:
Bwindi – Where Gorillas and Chimps Meet;
Divided by a River — Chimps and Bonobos;
A Chimp/Human Hybrid?;
Appearances Can Be Deceiving;
Fossey’s Death and Ecotourism;
Reintroduction: A Realistic Hope?;
Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall;
Working in the Field;
The Making of a Primatologist;
Chimps and Humans: Genetic Twins, Warriors & Meat Eaters;
Interview with Dr. Craig Stanford
Dr. Craig Stanford spoke with TWM in his office at the University of Southern California about the status of the endangered chimpanzee and bonobo populations in the primate rich tri-state area of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. With a picture of Jane Goodall, an inspirational force for all primatologists, peaking over his shoulder, Dr. Stanford talked to us about the struggle for survival of our closest relatives.
TWM: Nice to meet you, Dr. Stanford.
Dr. Stanford: Good morning.
Bwindi – Where Gorillas and Chimps Meet
TWM: Tell us about your work as a primatologist, and its relationship to the work of Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall.
Dr. Stanford: These days I work at Bwindi, Uganda. It’s about 20 miles or so from where Fossey worked for all those years, where Gorillas in the Mist was done. Her story unfolded in a beautiful volcanic mountain range, the Virungas. They’re on the border between Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. About 20 miles inland, into the interior of Uganda, there’s another mountain range, not volcanic; in between, there’s flat farmland that used to be forested. This inland range is Bwindi. There are no chimps in the Virungas. There are chimps and gorillas in Bwindi. I did the current study because I wanted to see what gorillas and chimps were like when they were living in the same place.
TWM: What do they do when they meet?
Dr. Stanford: Answering that question was one of our original goals…. For years after we began the study, we didn’t ever see them in the same tree, so we thought they never met, but we now realize that on rare occasions they do.
TWM: Is it avoidance behavior?
Dr. Stanford: Yes, probably. Actually, we did a lot of GPS stuff where we satellite mapped everything they do and everywhere they go. When they meet, they’re typically oblivious to each other, which is interesting. In nine years we’ve only seen one fight, where the chimps actually kind of terrorized the gorillas to drive them out of the trees where the chimps were feeding.
Divided by a River — Chimps and Bonobos
TWM: What about the bonobos and the chimps? Are they super close genetically . . . and their ranges, do they overlap?
Dr. Stanford: Yes, they are very close because they’re basically both variants of the same animal. And no, the ranges don’t overlap, they’re adjacent. If you go back a million and a half years, or maybe less, you’d find there was one ape that looked like the two of them combined, and what almost certainly happened is that this huge river, the Congo River, which is like the Mississippi, probably changed course at some point and divided what had been this ape’s range into two pieces, most of it to the North of the river and then a little bit of it in the South. Those two animals were the same animal, and then over thousands of generations, you know, mutations happened. There was no more gene flow. There was no migration back and forth across the river. As a result the chimpanzees were isolated in the North; the bonobos to the South.
TWM: Just because of the separation of the river?
Dr. Stanford: Well, that’s the way most species are formed, right? That’s why if you go to the Grand Canyon, and you go to the North Rim and compare the animals there to the South Rim animals, you find that there are these slight differences. The squirrels on the North side are very similar to the ones on the South side. You look at their genetics and you find that they’ve been separate from the squirrels on the other side for exactly the length of time the canyon has been there. They go their separate ways. There’s no longer any contact. A mutation happens here that doesn’t happen there, . . . there’s no more migration. The genes don’t cross the canyon, so, a thousand years later you have squirrels with pointy ears here and not there.
That’s what happened with people. That’s why Thai people have Asian eyes and people in India a thousand miles to the West don’t. It’s almost certainly geographic isolation.
TWM: Like Jared Diamond says in Guns, Germs and Steel, there isn’t as much North/South diffusion, across areas with different climates?
Dr. Stanford: That’s right. It’s about lack of migration, and a lot of that has to do with mountain ranges, climate, and those kinds of things . . . maybe social barriers. So yes.
TWM: So, that’s why the bonobos and chimpanzees took these different paths; the way their societies are structured?
Dr. Stanford: Yes. As to why they actually went where they did socially, we don’t really know. We just kind of speculate. But the reason they’re different is clearly geographic separation because of this huge river, no question.
A Chimp/Human Hybrid?
TWM: Can chimps and bonobos mate? Could a mother bonobo pass the larger skull of a half chimp baby?
Dr. Stanford: Sure. Absolutely. We don’t allow that because bonobos are a critically endangered species and they have a very slow reproductive life, so the last thing we want is for a female bonobo to basically waste her pregnancy and her reproductive stuff to bear a hybrid that has no meaning, really . . . just as a novelty. So we don’t ever allow that to happen in captivity and in the wild they don’t see each other, because there’s a river boundary between their ranges. But oh yes, they’re genetically similar enough. There’s no question, I think that a chimpanzee and a human could create a totally viable offspring.
TWM: Oh, wow, now you’ve hit the front page!
Dr. Stanford: No, it’s a sci-fi kind of scenario, but you look at what people do with bio technology and it would be absurd to say it’s not possible. The only barriers would be ethical barriers. There have been research studies where people have shown that sperm transfer between chimp and human . . . I forget which was the sperm and which was the egg . . . that the sperm can penetrate the egg. And then scientists say they stopped the experiment there for ethical reasons, but my guess would be that somebody somewhere has gone further than that and created an embryo or something. Given what we can do with biotechnology, we could create a human/chimp hybrid, I would think, no problem.
Well, there would be problems, but you could get around the problems technically . . . but who wants to do that? Hopefully nobody wants to do that.
Appearances Can Be Deceiving
TWM: There are people who want to do all kinds of things!
Dr. Stanford: (laughs) I know, that’s the thing; that’s why I say it’s probably been done somewhere at least to some point at some level, you know, because we’re very closely related. In fact, you know, gorillas all look kind of like gorillas, right? If you look at gorillas in Nigeria compared to gorillas in Ivory Coast or Cameroon, the gorillas in those different places are more different from each other genetically than we are from chimps . . . even though they look the same. They have been fragmented over time by ice age, droughts, and forests. Being separated they become genetically isolated populations. But still, they haven’t changed anatomically, they look the same . . . You wouldn’t know, if you saw these two gorillas, that they were hardly related at all. But they are not very closely related. Whereas we and chimps look dramatically different, even though we’re closely related. It’s confusing because genetics and species formation are not tightly linked. You can have species look really different that are really closely related. And you can have species that look the same be really distantly related … and that’s not really well understood by anybody.
Fossey’s Death and Ecotourism
TWM: How about that inside scoop on Fossey?
Dr. Stanford: If there’s one thing students should take away from this movie, it’s that the African conservation movement really started with Fossey’s death. She was totally against working with the local people for conservation, against educating local people in a constructive way. Did she do things that were racist? It might have been a colonial attitude, or perhaps it wasn’t about race. It was just that she was there to protect the animals and the people were a major hindrance to her. It was her own little fiefdom that she was trying to protect. Kind of like the recluse on the mountaintop…. I’ve met people who were field assistants, her African assistants. They’ve come to Uganda to see our gorillas. They remember her respectfully, but they all speak Swahili in an area where people speak French, or the Rwandan language which is called Kinyarwanda. Because Fossey didn’t speak French and she had trouble speaking Kinyarwanda, she forced them all to speak a completely new language to work with her. That was classic colonialism. Today they all speak Swahili because she forced them to. To me, conservation of animals is all about people, obviously. Fossey was always absolutely opposed to ecotourism because she didn’t want a bunch of backpackers traipsing around in her backyard. Then, the minute that she died, literally within weeks of her death, her students who had been there, most of whom had a fairly antagonistic relationship with her, approached the government about working together to set up great ape ecotourism. So the irony is that after Fossey’s death, gorilla conservation actually began to succeed. They gave local people a stake in protecting them. It’s their natural heritage, not ours. If the African people decided “we just don’t want them anymore”, there’s nothing we in the West could do except to try to persuade them otherwise. But when Fossey died, everything changed. The government of Rwanda realized that the gorillas could be a real cash cow.
So, when there was that horrible genocide in 1994, when almost a million people perished, only one gorilla was killed in that whole conflict. Ironically, that gorilla was killed accidentally in the dark when fighters thought they were sharp-shooting a human. Because each side (the government and the rebels) thought they were going to win, neither wanted to commit the equivalent of burning the whole coffee crop. They wanted the revenue to be there after the war. So they protected 350 gorillas while almost a million people were killed. That’s just a sign of how successful ecotourism is there. Of course, whenever there’s a civil war, tourists stop coming for a while.
TWM: How are things right now?
Dr. Stanford: As far as I know, right now tourism is happening. People still don’t go the way they used to. They fear Rwanda. But it’s safe, because there are platoons of soldiers there to protect tourists. It’s not exactly a wilderness experience . . . like 50 soldiers per person, something absurd like that. But ecotourism does work. In Bwindi, ecotourism also works. A portion of the money goes to local schools and people and dispensaries and clinics and all that. The government gets most of the money, but then the government has a big incentive to protect the animals, so you don’t see people angrily shooting the animals. In Bwindi maybe one gorilla is killed every five years or so.
TWM: So the bushmeat problem is happening elsewhere?
Dr. Stanford: Yes, that’s happening elsewhere. More in central and west Africa. There’s a very, very small, probably insignificant, bushmeat problem in east Africa, fortunately.
TWM: Why are there so many people in Rwanda?
Dr. Stanford: It’s probably the volcanic soil, rich and fertile. It supports lots of crops in a small area. Gorillas live in the last remaining piece of forest. Now there are people all the way up the slopes. Rwanda is about the most densely populated country in Africa, I would think. Originally it was all one country. Then the Belgians divided it up into Rwanda and Burundi and it was supposed to be Hutus and Tutsis separated, but they really weren’t separated. . . .
TWM: So even though the people want to protect the gorillas, they are in competition for the land, the habitat, because of crowding?
Dr. Stanford: Yes.
Reintroduction: A Realistic Hope?
TWM: What about the idea of sanctuaries? Is it fanciful to think of moving endangered animal populations into areas like Gabon, which have lots of pristine habitat?
Dr. Stanford: Yes. You want to protect the populations where they live. People say let’s put hippos in the Everglades, but you have no idea what the consequences will be. But there are two factions, like with the condors here [in California]. People said you can’t separate the animal from the habitat, so once that’s gone, they’re gone. Then others said, and I agree with the others, “Well you know, condors used to live all the way from Florida and the Gulf Coast, through Mexico, and it is totally artificial, that once this little bit of habitat around Oxnard is gone then they should just be gone. So we should catch them and captive rear them, and then find places where they used to live 500 years ago and we should put them back there. Because, after all, if it wasn’t for us, they would still be there.”
What happens in Indonesia with orangutans is that they take confiscated, smuggled orangutans and then they captive rear them and rehabilitate them to know how to live in the wild a little bit. Then they put them into empty forests where orangutans have all been exterminated, caught, or shot, or whatever, and I think that’s fine. You can’t do it if there still are animals there who have territories. They’re not going to allow new animals to set up in their territory. Chimps are highly territorial. They would kill them. So it doesn’t work at all. The other big problem is that when you take an animal out of the wild and put it in captivity, it acquires diseases, human diseases, and maybe the orangutan or chimp survives after getting the flu or a cold from you, but you put it back in the wild and it is spread to all the other animals it contacts. You can wipe out a whole country’s worth of animals just because you’ve introduced a few captive animals that carry our diseases because we’re genetically so close. It doesn’t work to introduce apes back to the wild unless you find a totally empty forest, meaning no animals of that species. It’s kind of a disheartening thing.
TWM: What do you think about zoos and animals in laboratories?
Dr. Stanford: Most zoos are crappy little roadside things. Little zoos are a problem, but we need to have big, good zoos to educate the public and also for captive breeding projects for some of the really rare animals like bonobos and orangutans. No, I think zoos have a place. For every other kind of animal, I think zoos play an important role, but when you talk about animals that have the intellect of a child or the psychology of a two-year-old child, then I think it’s ethically pretty murky . . . nobody would ever say it’s OK to put a mentally disabled adult in an enclosure like that but it’s all right if the animal is not a human. The LA Zoo is one of the ten best zoos in the country. Yet when I was talking to the director, I said “Look at that chimp, tell me he isn’t like a two-year-old child with the same types of needs . . .” and he said zoos can’t really provide for the needs of the great apes, so there is a question. . . .
Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall
TWM: What about Fossey personally?
Dr. Stanford: She was far more extreme than the picture the movie presented. She was far more of a personal mess! The adult version of this would be: She was emotionally unstable. She was an alcoholic. She had emphysema from chain smoking. She was a hopeless romantic, which is normally great, except when you’re living in the middle of nowhere. All of which left her being kind of a mess. She was also doing all the stuff that was portrayed in the movie: mock executions of local people and kidnapping of their children. You know, the film was making Sigourney Weaver kind of a heroine. She looked pretty good. Actually a buddy of mine who teaches at Yale was a consultant on the film and said that the guy who played the photographer Fossey was having an affair with, the Australian actor, was a mess in the field. They had to carry a bathtub up the mountain because he had to have a regular bath. He was kind of soft in the field. But Sigourney Weaver was very tough, and very cool and totally into doing whatever you would normally do as a researcher in that camp. And he, my buddy, really respected that. Gorillas in the Mist was a great movie, I thought. It was great for our field. Although we’ve always thought Jane Goodall should allow a movie to be made about her life, she never has.
“You can wipe out a whole country’s worth of animals just because you’ve introduced a few captive animals that carry our diseases because we’re genetically so close.”
TWM: Jane Goodall is so different.
Dr. Stanford: Yes, she is very different from Fossey. What I respect about Jane is that she was never myopic like that. She spent 25 years studying the chimps as a pioneering scientist and then in the mid-eighties she had an awakening, an epiphany where she realized that it wasn’t just about her chimps, . . . by this time she was world famous, the chimps were world famous . . . but she realized that it was really about the larger environmental issues. So it’s been 20 years now that she’s been on this mission to be kind of the Mother Theresa for the environment, and I do think of her that way. There are scientists, friends of mine who say, “Well, it’s a shame that she used to be a pioneering scientist, but she’s not really a scientist any more. And yet the public still thinks of her as being a scientist.” In fact I feel that scientists, even great scientists, are kind of a dime a dozen, and how many Jane Goodalls are there in the world, really? There are only a few people like that. I just think she’s a treasure. She’s got an agenda. Yes, she’s a quiet person, but she’s got as big and strong an agenda as anybody in the world. So she’s kind of a missionary. She’s dedicated to her cause. She lives very frugally and simply. She’s got a team of people who help her with her mission, which is to inspire and educate the world about the big environmental issues, and living responsibly. The chimp studies have become only the platform for that, I think. In fact when she came to USC last October, when we hosted her here, (she’s an honorary faculty member), she didn’t show slides of chimps. Only part of her talk was on chimps. She talked about these larger things . . . she spoke about hope. She’s kind of a motivational speaker.
Working in the Field
TWM: What about you? Do you maintain a distance or have you developed relationships with the animals?
Dr. Stanford: Ummmn, yes, but not in the way that she does. I went to Gombe to study the relationship between the chimps and the animals that they hunt. So I was really more interested in the monkeys, for example. I went as an ecologist to do a predator/prey study. But then the chimps are so much like watching people. I had one child at the time. I was away from my daughter for long periods of time when she was real small and it was a vicarious thing, watching baby chimps play, watching mother chimps take care of their babies. It was a very vicarious kind of parenting, so that was cool. On the whole, though, I think I’m less of an anthropomorphizing kind of scientist than Jane is, than others are. I’ve also always been interested in other very different kinds of animals, like birds and reptiles.
The Making of a Primatologist
TWM: Do you keep an email diary when you’re in the field?
Dr. Stanford: I keep field notes. Probably because when I first went to the field, it was before there was e-mail and before there were even faxes. I actually don’t allow my graduate students to enter the data in the field. It is very common for people, now that they all have lap tops, to go to the field and spend the day watching some animals, chimps we’ll say, and then the whole next day enter in all the data. So you end up being in the forest only 3 days out of 7, and a lot of the rest of time is sitting at the porch, typing up the rest of your observations. So when you come back, you have a several month jump on getting your thesis done. I just think that’s pathetic because you go for such a tiny slice of your life to wherever you go, the middle of Africa or Asia, that you should spend every waking minute you can, even if you’re not doing your research, even if you’re just going for a hike or collecting snakes or snails, experiencing it. Whatever it is you just need to immerse yourself. So I don’t do an e-mail diary. I keep a field note journal that is actually pretty boring. It’s very rarely emotional. You read Darwin’s journals and people go on and on and on, but I don’t do that. I do keep a daily journal that goes back to when I was 13, probably. I grew up in suburban New Jersey, collecting everything.
TWM: So you were on this path pretty early. When did you know you wanted to do this work and why did you pick chimpanzees?
Dr. Stanford: I actually was one of those kids who from the time I was about three or four was . . . for whatever odd reason . . . I was just focused on natural history stuff. Instead of having girlfriends, I had pythons and rattlesnakes when I was in high school. I actually had a girlfriend but I was more focused on pythons and rattlesnakes! I was still very focused on wildlife through college but everybody who was a bio major was pre-med and I didn’t want to do that. I had a roommate who I hated, actually, who had a textbook that had a primate on the cover and I said, “What’s that?” . . . I wound up doing an anthropology/zoology major, and then went on in that to grad school. I left and went to law school for a year because I was questioning whether what I was doing was practical . . . I was going to be an environmental lawyer and I went into a joint JD and MS in forestry program, or something. I got there and realized it was a terrible mistake because mostly everybody there was going to work for the timber industry!
TWM: Do you know you did the right thing?
Dr. Stanford: I know I did the right thing by going back . . . actually I had a professor that year who said “forget practicalities in your life, do what you love to do, do what you think you can do better than anybody else in the world if there’s anything like that”. I said, “Yeah, well, there is”, so I went back and it’s a very good thing I did.
TWM: What do your kids think of what you do?
Dr. Stanford: My kids think it’s cool, what I do. They like the fact that Jane Goodall comes or I go to dinner with Pierce Brosnan. They think that’s very cool at a superficial level. But like anything, after a while, it’s sort of just what your dad does. It’s less exotic to them than it is to other people. We have taken them to Africa when I was working, but it’s not a very rich environment socially, to be out in the field with no people around. Jane actually derived a lot of publicity from having her son Grub with her at Gombe. She had to build a safe house for him because one of the villagers had a child snatched from her arms and killed by a chimp.
Chimps and Humans: Genetic Twins, Warriors & Meat Eaters
TWM: What’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen a chimp do?
Dr. Stanford: Hunt. It’s pretty gruesome. (Note: Jane Goodall was shocked when she first observed chimps hunting and conducting “wars”; chimps had been assumed to be vegetarian and peaceful.)
For most people, watching animal behavior is a tedious thing, because animals spend most of their time sitting, eating, and not doing very much. But when chimps hunt, it’s incredible, heart-stopping, exciting, horrifying behavior. They ascend into a tree with a group of monkeys and they chase them down and catch one and they literally tear it apart and then they squabble over it or they chase down a mom. I’ve seen them chase a mother monkey down and then take her baby away and then she comes back and tries to rescue the baby and there’s a fight. It’s just absolute pandemonium and very gruesome sometimes, really very hard to watch. During those periods I was getting amazing observations and data that other people had never really documented very carefully and at the same time I had studied these monkeys and the chimps both. Sometimes I gave names to the animals who were getting killed. It was sad. I have old tape recordings of myself narrating these things. They used tape recorders in the early days, then we switched to video. It was very hard to record because it happens high overhead at high speeds in dense foliage and all that. It took years to get good photos of this whole thing happening.
That’s the most exciting thing.
The Contingency of Evolution
TWM: Could today’s great apes take an evolutionary turn and become more human or is that door shut in terms of further evolution?
Dr. Stanford: There’s no reason to think that if you gave them another two million years they would evolve toward anything like us. They would just go on their own path. It would be kind of like saying, “What are wolves going to become someday?” It isn’t like they’re trapped somehow and if you just gave them enough time they’d become human.
TWM: So we just branched out differently?
Dr. Stanford: It is branching. It’s a burst. So they went off on their own way and we opted for upright posture and a particular set of adaptations that were good for us and each thing is contingent on the previous step that it was built on. There is no vision guiding it. It was just built step by step and there’s no reason to think in that kind of contingent history that — it’s kind of like saying, what if Hitler had never lived?
TWM: It’s all crazy probability?
Dr. Stanford: Right, exactly. People have said, why don’t we have all these other adaptations that would be so cool for us? You can’t think that way. It’s just like history. It’s all very contingent. That’s why evolution is a science, but not a science like chemistry. You can’t replicate anything and if you set the clock back there’s no reason to assume that it would all happen the same way again because of all the little contingent stuff that happens.
TWM: Each step along the way, it’s the interaction between the environment and the organism?
Dr. Stanford: Sure. If any of those things were different, the whole outcome might be different. You can look at the fact that we are intelligent life on Earth in a couple of different ways.
There probably isn’t any other intelligent life in the universe because here we have 10 billion species that lived on the Earth, and only one was intelligent out of 10 billion. Or you could say, well, we only really know about one planet that has conditions for life and on this one planet we ended with intelligent life, so we’re one for one. So therefore maybe many, many other planets have intelligent life but there’s no way to know which of those two views is more correct. It’s either incredibly rare or it may be very common. Chimps tell us that you can be very intelligent and human-like without being human at all. There’s no reason to think they’d be anymore human a million years from now. They might easily go on some other path entirely.
TWM: If you have one thing to leave with students and teachers about our nearest relatives, what would it be?
Dr. Stanford: I would say that what’s annoying to me sometimes is people look at chimps and we talk about the issues surrounding their survival or their welfare and still even very educated, enlightened people think about them in a caricature way because they’re cute. They look like comical versions of our children, and that prevents us from thinking seriously about this whole issue. I say, when you are considering the situation of a chimpanzee, think of that chimp as being like a child, a human child. They have similar intellect and cognizance. Or think of them as being like a cognitively impaired adult and then think about how you’d want to deal with that chimp. Would you still want to put the chimp in the zoo or in a cage? Should we spend more money and effort and time preserving them and protecting them? Those kinds of issues. Even though everybody knows they are closely related to us, we often have trouble coming to terms with that. That they are somewhat like us, that we share so much of our DNA.
TWM: And what is the most rewarding experience you’ve had with chimps?
Dr. Stanford: It’s hard to convey when you watch a National Geographic program. People “ooh” and “ahhh” over the close proximity to the chimps. We don’t do that anymore because we realize it’s an easy way to transmit disease to them. We usually don’t get closer than 30 feet. They often will come over to us themselves and then we don’t move out of the way, we just sit there passively. The most rewarding thing to me has been going out alone, which I usually did at Gombe, following chimps who might be going to hunt, then sitting among them. I just went wherever they went. . . . That area is a beautiful place. It’s mountainous and you’re in this grassy hillside clearing, with nice trees and cliffs. You’re looking out at the whole sweep of huge turquoise Lake Tanganyika. The chimps are sitting all around you and they’re all just doing their thing. It’s a very strange thing because they’re so human. It’s as though you’ve been transported back in a time machine to sit with early people. It has a sci-fi quality to it because they’re wild and not in any way tamed. But they’re used to you. Jane’s goal was to habituate them to us, so they would continue on with their normal behavior. They look right through you, as though you are part of the landscape. They don’t threaten. They don’t look for food. (We never eat around them.) It doesn’t mean anything to them because they don’t get anything from you, and they aren’t threatened by you. That’s an amazing feeling that’s very hard to describe, just being there quietly among them.
Everybody I know who does this says later that the sense of connection is astonishing.