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Contemplating Colobus

Dawn Starin reports on the state of colobus civilization in a small Gambian forest.

No matter how deep I am in the forest the sounds of humanity seep through, constantly reminding me that the Abuko Nature Reserve – a mosaic of habitats, a home for the endangered red colobus monkeys and various other species – is simply a tiny forest, smaller than Central Park in New York or Hyde Park or Hampstead Heath in London.

Dogs barking, cocks crowing, donkeys braying, grain being pounded, axes being wielded: the sounds of the bordering villages come wafting across the savannah and deep into the riverine forest. On Sunday mornings I hear church bells ringing and choirs singing. On Fridays at two in the afternoon I hear Muslim prayers being recited over a loudspeaker. And on most holidays and weekend afternoons I hear radios and cassettes; and drums, whistles and cheering when football matches are held.

This is merely a forest blip in a small, finger-shaped country on the coast of West Africa. It’s also where I straddle two worlds. Every day I have one foot in one world, one foot in another – one foot in the people world, one foot in the monkey world. Most of the time both worlds collide and confuse me.

People here, especially women, rarely enter the forest. I was, and still am, considered slightly mad for spending so much time in the “not safe bush” on my own. I am frequently asked “Don’t you get scared in Abuko?” “Shouldn’t someone come with you?” “Wouldn’t it be better if you took a guard with you?” “You could be attacked. Do you have special powers to protect you from the snakes?” “The forest is full of djinns. Do you have special jujus to protect you from the djinns?” A local wood-carver, tells me that “only white people can go into the bush alone. Black people see things and hear things there that make them go crazy in the head.”

According to one of the forest rangers, ‘Toubobs’ (whites) and African people are different: “Our skin and our blood is stronger than you, and we are better at smelling and hearing and feeling, and that is why we know there are djinns and you don’t know. If you have the right kind of ears and the right kind of nose you can hear and smell the djinns. Black man kind, not Toubob kind. I don’t know how you can be in the forest so long and never see or hear or feel djinn. Do you sometimes have the hair move on your head and stand up and the heart goes thump’cause you meet something different than you?” When I tell him, “The only time my hair stands up and my heart goes thump is when I’m surprised by a snake,” the ranger takes his finger, puts it on my eyelid and says, “I don’t think you really see anything with these. I don’t know how you can say you know Abuko and the monkeys and the pythons if you don’t know how to use these. It is not what you look at; it is what you see that is important. You do not understand that what you think you see is sometimes not what is there. You have to learn to see. You are too much inside your books and papers and not inside the forest.”

But in spite of all the warnings I feel safe in the forest. It is my haven, my shelter. For me there is nothing to fear. There are no large predators in the forest. They were killed off decades ago. The only possible animal danger comes from snakes. I’m cautious, I look before I leap – sometimes I even stomp and hum outloud to warn any pythons, cobras, mambas, or puff adders of my approach. Yet I actually relish my snake sightings. In fact, I never really feel as though my day has been completely satisfying unless I have a slightly scary serpentine encounter. Potentially the most frightening thing in the forest is that nothing will happen and that I could get bored. I have an almost pathological terror of being bored. So far that hasn’t happened.

Sitting under a tallo tree, swatting away the mosquitoes and the tsetse flies, squashing ticks between my thumbnails, a red colobus soap opera is unfolding in 3-D Technicolor above my head. The members of two opposing troops – mostly the males – are chasing each other back and forth through the branches and down to the ground. While the subadults and adults call, threaten, display at and chase each other, squealing infant males follow closely behind, forming a cheerleading squad. The infant males follow so closely behind that the older males trip over them during the chase. A young oestrous female [sexually receptive] is attempting to switch troops, and both sides are vying for her uterus, the future home of the next generation. If a high percentage of females transfer on the same day things can get a bit chaotic, but in the long run transfers have little effect on troop size and composition, since females who have left are gradually replaced by females from other troops. However, this does mean that the genetic composition of the troop changes continually.

When different red colobus troops engage in hostilities, the winning troop does not permanently take over the loser’s territory: the winners simply move in for a while – maybe only an hour – use some of the resources, then leap off. The winners do not capture mates. Young females are not kidnapped or dragged off screaming and yelling. Neither are they evicted from their birth troop. They simply move between troops at will. Then another day dawns and another encounter occurs. Winners become losers and losers become winners.

Such small-scale hostility works well. Resources are occasionally shared and potential breeding females are swapped. There is definitely competition, but the combatants do not wage war. There is no pillage, no hoarding of resources. There is no rape. Instead, alliances are created and dissolved, friends are made and lost, altruism is promoted, selfishness is encouraged, wealth is redistributed, rivals are vanquished, self-esteem is lost and self-esteem is gained: a typical intertroop encounter is similar to many human encounters. All of our so-called virtues and our so-called evils, our strengths and weaknesses, our warts and foibles and joys and sorrows – many of the very key factors behind our – humanity’s – evolutionary success – are also part of what makes a colobus a colobus.

Sometimes when I watch the colobus I’m swamped with intellectual dread and confusion. I know that we share a very, very distant family history, and I know that what makes us human is not uniquely human. Murder, compassion and morality stem from our common past. But – and there’s always at least one but – the colobus’ behaviour and their raison d’etre is often beyond me.

There are so many times when I have no idea what they think or feel. My imagination is bankrupt. I have spent years associating with these thumbless, pot-bellied, clumsy acrobats, yet the simplest questions often panic me. Why do they sometimes walk right up to me, and other times I can’t get within 150 feet of them? Why don’t they have opposable thumbs? All other monkeys do. What is it about termite runways that they love? Why do they sit cramming fistfuls of this grainy substance into their mouths as fast as they can, shoving each other out of the way to get more and more and more? Does it provide much-needed antacids, nutrients, fungicides, antibiotics, none of the above, all of the above? Why do the young ones close their eyes whenever they play on the ground? Isn’t that dangerous? Why is it that one old female always lies in the same position on the same branch in a certain mampato tree, and none of the others seem to have favourite branches? Why do the males engage in tug-of-war stick fights, and the females don’t? Why don’t they drink more often? Water is available. The green monkeys drink everyday. Why do the colobus always look like they’re suffering from eczema during the dry season? The green monkeys and the patas never look like this.

It isn’t just the colobus who confuse me. Why do adult patas monkeys eat everything but the guts when they kill an agama lizard, and the infants eat only the guts? Why do female green monkeys have nipples so close together that their infants frequently suckle two teats at the same time?

Even the trees have secrets I can’t understand. Why is it that for decades the colobus never ate anything from the many fast-growing gmelina trees, and now their yellow flowers appear to be the number one food item? Why is it that no one – no monkeys, no rodents, no birds, no insects – eat the hard green fruit of the fafo-jambo tree? Do absolutely all animals find it impossible to digest this possibly toxic fruit?

These questions may seem silly and insignificant, but they haunt my days and sometimes even my dreams, because I believe the full picture of who these creatures are can only be understood by comprehending the trivia and minutia of their daily lives. It is the layering, the addition and subtraction of the commonplace, the ordinary, the so-called unimportant and inconsequential details, the behavioural flotsam and jetsam, which constitute the big picture and can provide answers. Quite simply, it seems to me that the usually unconsidered is deeply considerable. There is so much I do not understand. As my friend the forest ranger says, I have to learn to see. Yet I wonder, if I found the answers, would I be satisfied? Would I know what to do with the knowledge? Would I know where to place such ‘silly little facts’ in the grand scheme of things?

Entering Abuko this morning I find a five-inch-wide trail exactly like a bald tire tread winding along a dirt road. It can only be a python imprint. Why can’t the colobus, the green monkeys and the patas recognize that this is obviously a clean, fresh python track, and that there could be a problem if they don’t move away? They pay no attention to it. They don’t seem to have made the connection that this track was made by a python. Yet I have watched them watching pythons make tracks.

To me it’s so obvious. I see the track, I know a python might be nearby. I am alert. Laughing, their eyes shut, the young colobus roll around on the ground next to and over the track. The adults sit on the track eating fallen fruit. The greens chase each other back and forth over the track. All of them are taking chances, none of them are cautious, alert to possible danger. None of them are making the connection.

Whenever I observe a situation like this I’m totally mystified. It’s hard for me to accept that I’ll never know for certain what goes on – or doesn’t go on – in the mind of a monkey. It’s hard for me to accept that there’s such a huge gulf between us, and that I will probably never develop the ability to enter into the thoughts and feelings of another species. As a human I can easily take a visual cue (this is a python track, and it was just made) add it to an assumption (the python is probably nearby) and react accordingly (I should be careful). The monkeys don’t – or can’t – do this. Humans look for patterns, causes and relationships, and do so all the time. I don’t think the monkeys do – at least not in an obvious, regular way that I can comprehend. They are so very different from us: just a bunch of monkeys. And then I see two colobus hugging and kissing, reassuring each other, using gestures humans use everyday, displaying emotions we display everyday, and I remember that our very, very distant cousins are so much like us. And so I go from thinking the colobus are nothing like us because they don’t understand the meaning of a fresh python track, to thinking that they are like us because they kiss and hug and reassure each other, and that maybe someday I’ll be able to climb inside their heads and understand what’s really going on.

One of the problems with studying primates is that this constant to-ing and fro-ing of the ‘are-they/aren’t-they like us?’ dilemma and ‘will I/won’t I ever understand them?’ quandary occurs on a daily basis. It probably occurs with many primatologists. We are geared to searching out the similarities and when we’re hit head on with the so-very-obvious and, yes, I admit it, so-very-frequent dissimilarities, it turns our sense of self and others upside down. I have a feeling that biologists who work with worms and slugs and fruit flies don’t suffer this constant onslaught of schizophrenic confusion. Their fieldwork is probably much less personal, more subdued, probably much saner.

A green monkey with no left hand runs across the undergrowth. A colobus mother, clutching her dead infant with one arm, leaps from one palm tree to another. Three young colobus roll around on the ground, laughing, tugging and pulling at each other and rolling fist-sized pieces of termite mound along the ground. Are these creatures oblivious to the speckled light and the fallen logs in the shape of crocodiles, and the lianas climbing up, falling down, lying sideways like so many electric cords? Do they see the amazing beauty surrounding them? What do the colobus and the greens think when they sit in their forest perches? These are the things that really bother me. Oh sure, I know what they eat and who they like and who they want to chase away, and I am positive that they can feel fear and rage and lust, and probably even love: but I have no idea what they think, how they really feel, deep down to the little bones of their feet. Does the green monkey resent the fact that she has lost her hand? Does she replay the incident over and over again in her head? Does she experience the pain, pressure and itching of phantom limb syndrome?

Does the mother know that her dead infant will soon be so laden down with maggots that she will no longer be able to carry it – that she will have to dump it? Does she despise her infant’s killer? Does she want revenge? Is she in mourning? Does she replay her previous actions and go through all the various combinations of ‘if onlys’ and ‘what ifs’? Will she remember this offspring until the day she dies? I believe the mothers do feel a loss when their infant dies, but I don’t know whether they feel this loss until the end of their days. I don’t think they really understand death. Certainly they scream when they come across a dead colobus in the forest. However, this does not mean they understand death. These ‘death screams’ could simply signify ‘something isn’t right here’.

When the young ones are playing and laughing, do they ‘feel good’, and in what way? What do the older ones do to feel good once they have outgrown the play period, and how is that feeling different? In humans, laughter seems to be a releaser of endorphins, the natural feel-happy drug. It floods the brain with endorphins and makes you feel positively disposed towards the other person. Is this true for the colobus?

There are so many words we take for granted when we discuss the human condition – ‘lamenting’, ‘anguished’, ‘broken-hearted’, ‘exalting’, ‘rejoicing’. Such words seem to define us. Can these words ever be used in conjunction with monkeys? Are there simian equivalents? And in what way would their meanings differ, without the presence of complex language?

For me there are always more questions than answers. Although this is painfully frustrating, it’s probably the way it should be, for humans. I suppose I imagine that questions are the peaks of mental mountains, and that observing the world around us, asking questions, and then seeking solutions, is probably what drove our evolution. Is there a colobus equivalent of asking questions? Do they scale their own ‘mental mountains’?

As an anthropologist doing field work, I am alert to the dangers of the over-interpretation of the unobservable thoughts swarming around in monkey minds. I’ve often been warned that one must avoid the pitfalls of anthropomorphism. But, also as a field-working anthropologist, I have no problem accepting the possibility that there are a vast number of intricate mental gymnastics taking place inside these physically clumsy acrobats feasting and fighting above my head.

As an anthropologist and an evolutionist, I want to know who we humans are and where we came from, how we got here, and where we’re going. Thus I want to know what other species can tell us about our behaviour. More importantly, as a fieldworker and a conservationist, I want to know what can be done to save these forest creatures from their downward spiral of disappearing from this part of the world. But when the lights are out at night and I’m falling asleep and trying to understand what it all means, I tend to switch gears and questions. Are the colobus – sprawled out along thick mampato branches high up in the forest or curled around each other – dreaming?

© Dawn Starin 2009

Dawn Starin is an anthropologist who has spent the last few decades studying primates in Africa and Asia.

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