Evolutionary biologist and broadcaster Ben Garrod wants to show us something few scientists do. He reveals the important emotional connection we share with animals, and one species in particular – the chimpanzee. His long-standing love of these beings has revealed not only how similar we are, but also how much we can learn from them. Meeting with Ben before one of his popular stage shows, Kate Ford finds out why they are so important to him.
The renowned conservationist and chimpanzee expert Dr Jane Goodall stared at the young waiter she had invited to sit next to her. Ben Garrod had been amazed to find himself serving his ‘hero’ during a Cambridge University dinner and had seized his moment of serendipity.
Ben recalls, “I sat down and she just looked into my eyes and no one said anything. I was at full panic, thinking, should I look away, am I being dominant, do I need to be dominant, should I be subordinate. I didn’t know what to do.” And for about a minute, the eminent primatologist and UN Messenger of Peace continued to study the young graduate. Then she broke away and said “right we’ll sort something out”. And that was how, at the age of 23, Ben ended up travelling to Africa to run a chimpanzee conservation project.
Being assessed by Dr Goodall in such an instinctive way is something Ben now finds himself doing automatically, 14 years on. “If you work with primates you’re very good as sussing people out. I’m very lucky to have met Jane and she fundamentally changed my life, in the way that she changes so many lives around the world.” Arriving in Uganda to begin his dream job at the chimpanzee sanctuary, Ben was brought down to earth though, when he realised he would have to start at the bottom, literally. He was tasked with cleaning up the chimp faeces whilst he learned the do’s and don’ts of working with these highly intelligent animals.
One important rule was impressed upon Ben, ‘never, ever touch the chimps’.
These were wild animals, strong and potentially dangerous. They had been rescued from terrible situations and only those carers with considerable experience were allowed to get close to them. But Ben found himself so entranced by the species which shares 98.6 percent of our DNA, that after just two weeks he broke this golden rule.
The university Professor describes his endearing and amazing encounter with a female called Pasa in his latest book, ‘The Chimpanzee and Me’. The enigmatic chimp who made Ben break the rules was more aloof and contemplative than the others at the sanctuary. One day, as Ben approached, she silently reached out her hand through the bars that separated the animals from the humans at the sanctuary. “I saw something so profound in those eyes,” he recalls and found himself cautiously extending his hand in response. Grabbing his wrist, Ben realised Pasa could have easily broken his arm. But instead, she drew his hand to her mouth and kissed it. This ‘breakthrough moment’ helped set him on a journey of championing the cause of what he calls ‘our forest cousins’.
Reading Ben’s book had me laughing out loud one minute and gasping in shock the next. But the way he describes his connection with Pasa is one of the most touching highlights. Ben wants people to see the chimps the way he does, and share the affection that he so deeply feels for them. His engaging stories are told with such grace and love and the reader cannot help but fall in love with chimps, just as he did.
"We’re not the only beings on Earth, so why don’t we say chimp beings or gorilla beings?"
“Pasa is a being,” he tells me, during our meeting at the Natural History Museum, London. “We’re not the only beings on Earth, so why don’t we say chimp beings or gorilla beings? The hardest bit for me in the book was getting the emotion across and being ok with that. As scientists we are good at putting on our lab coats and looking stern, but not very good at emotion. I’m not trying to educate the reader, I’m trying to connect. I want the reader to come away annoyed or happy or galvanised and say, how can I do something, what should I change?”
"Does something so closely related to us deserve if not human rights, then ‘nearly human’ rights?"
Ben strives to enlighten and educate the public on the issues of bushmeat, which are particularly disturbing. As part of the disgraceful trade in wild animal meat, mother chimps are killed and babies are taken to be sold in the pet trade. Bushmeat is big business and has been seized in the UK. Ben spoke to customs officers earlier in the year, who had just confiscated a metric tonne of bushmeat. “It’s terrible because it is causing destruction of our ecosystems. People say as a crime it’s not a priority, but wildlife crime funds drug dealing and arms trade. We don’t really address it and we should, because there are also community health risks with bushmeat. Some bushmeat has zoonotic disease that can be passed between humans and primates.” Another startling fact is that it is estimated in excess of 5000 primates are kept as pets in the UK, since it is currently legal to do so. This is something Ben vigorously campaigns against and the Government has recently announced proposals to look into banning this.
"Tree planting is a good idea but wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t cut them down in the first place."
Hunting is not the only threat to chimpanzees. Habitat destruction is a greater cause of dwindling numbers. Ben is outspoken about how much Africa has been exploited over the years. “Tree planting is a good idea but wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t cut them down in the first place. And we need to stop saying things like "habitat loss". It’s not habitat loss. I lost my keys - that’s an accident. We don’t accidentally lose habitat, it’s habitat destruction. We are wilfully destroying the world around us.” Ben believes everyone needs to make a stand against the damage being caused to our planet and try to live more sustainably. “I do think there’s a big difference that everyone can make by doing little things.”
Ben says there are so many animals and plants under threat across the world that one way forward is to focus on ‘umbrella’ species like the chimp. Saving them involves saving their forest habitat, which is home to hundreds of other valuable animals, flora and fauna. In this way, many species can be protected. Community and education projects to promote understanding of chimps are also effective, as are providing alternative sources of income for people.
They accept you’re just this big lanky ape
Over the years Ben has studied communities of wild chimps as part of his work to habituate rescued animals. It’s a role requiring commitment and endless patience. “You spend maybe six months trekking them in the forest and they scream and disappear. And eventually they don’t run off and you get a little closer. And after a year or so you get to the point where they’re on the ground and they look at you and then they’ll charge at you. Then eventually they realise you’re not a threat, you’re not food, they might as well stop wasting energy. Then finally they accept you’re just this big lanky ape that’s walking behind them for some reason, writing things down all the time.” After getting to this stage, it is important not to bring in anyone new to the study group, because the chimps recognise individual humans and the process starts all over. “I can recognise hundreds of chimps facially and also they can recognise me. I’ve met up with chimps I’ve not seen for 10 years who are friends of mine and we carry on from where we left off.”
Ben can’t help but anthropomorphise (give human traits to) chimps because they share so many of our characteristics. From sticking out their tongue when they focus, to playing peek-a-boo, using tools and showing one another compassion. But their backgrounds are tragic. There are so many orphans who have to be ‘taught’ chimp behaviour, such as fishing for termites with sticks, if they are to stand a chance of being returned to the wild. “Some of the orphans come in traumatised, physically and emotionally. One we rescued was very emotionally damaged, some are physically damaged and can’t use their arms and some are bruised and scarred.”
The breakthrough is worth all the sleepless nights
“The patience you need with both captive and wild chimps is different from one another but it’s still months, if not years, of patience. You do question things because you’re the other side of the world and you’re living in a mud hut and there are cobra snakes everywhere and you’re thinking ‘why am I doing this?’ But then you have that breakthrough and you see a young one who’s an orphan smile or chuckle. When you see a population accept you and you know they’re safe and won’t be hunted for their meat because they’re legally protected… that breakthrough is worth all the sleepless nights and all the long days.”
Although Ben has worked with other species, it is the chimpanzees who have had the biggest effect on him. “There are certain chimps I would count and include as friends. As Jane Goodall says, if you grow up with cats and dogs and you don’t see emotion in your cat and dog, you’re not looking at them properly. I see emotion in chimps and feelings, and especially the sense of humour in these guys, it is brilliant. They’ve got a superior mind, they can plan. They can put themselves in your shoes and know what you’re thinking and then act accordingly."
At the end of our time together, I ask Ben if he will sign my copy of his book and he writes, “These amazing beings still have so much to tell us.” He explains this is what Dr Jane Goodall wrote when she signed her book for him. “She’s my inspiration.”
Ben Garrod is Professor of Evolutionary Biology and Science Engagement at East Anglia University and has presented TV programmes such as ‘Secrets of Bones’ and ‘Attenborough and the Great Dinosaur’ working alongside the famous naturalist. He has lived and worked around the world, from Africa to Antarctica. His love for science and nature began when he was very young and he credits his family with helping to foster and encourage his inquisitive mind. “I had this huge level of support. ‘We don’t know the answer but let’s find out’ or ‘if you want to live in Africa, you’ll live in Africa’.” Growing up, his grandfather in particular would make up incredible stories to explain the things they saw together. As well as sparking his enthusiasm for questioning the world around him, his grandfather's tales also helped him develop his own unique narrative of scientific story-telling which he employs in his books and shows. Along with his chimp ‘memoir’, he has also published several children’s books about dinosaurs. He is an advocate for encouraging children to pursue their dreams and ambitions. “We’ve got a generation of young people who want to see better. I couldn’t applaud that more,” says Ben.
Out of the possible population of up to two million chimps believed to have lived 100 years ago, there are now believed to be just 300,000, or less. Chimpanzees are apes, not monkeys. They use tools such as rocks to crack open nuts. These skills get passed on to their young. In 1960 Dr Jane Goodall discovered that chimpanzees used tools, which helped to revolutionise the way we viewed animals. Her life-long work has revealed many behaviours, such as compassion, that were previously thought to be exclusively human. Aged 85 Jane still travels the world to promote conservation and environmental causes. Visit www.JaneGoodall.org.uk to find out about her pioneering work. You can also discover how to get involved in her Roots and Shoots programme which helps young people across the world take part in animal and environmental projects.
How you can help
Support one of the charities working to save the chimpanzee. Ben promotes the pioneering work of Jenny and Jimmy Desmond of the Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue and Protection. For more information about their valuable work visit www.liberiachimanzeerescue.org
www.psgb.org is the Primate Society of Great Britain and features information about working with chimps.
Pasa lives at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, visit www.ngambaisland.org for more details. Chimpanzee pictures are courtesy of Ben Garrod and Jenny Desmond.
Proceeds from Ben’s book 'The Chimpanzee and Me’ will go to help chimps in Africa. Visitwww.BenGarrod.co.uk Facebook /DrBenGarrod Twitter @Ben_garrod