Australian adventure writer Paul Raffaele and I are talking by phone — me in Pennsylvania and him 10,000 miles away in Sydney — and I’m getting chills all over again as he recounts a story from his new book "Among the Great Apes: Adventures on the Trail of Our Closest Relatives".
It was 1985, and he was visiting Sepilok, a sanctuary in northern Borneo for orphaned baby orangutans. Hoping to shoo away a lone banana-hogging female to entice others over to be photographed, Raffaele snatched the banana bucket and placed it near him. Instead of ambling off, though, the female gazed at him with “keenly understanding eyes,” grabbed his camera bag full of expensive equipment, and placed it near her. After a series of “meaningful” looks, Raffaele finally realized her intent. He gave back the bananas, and she returned his camera bag.
“That was one of the most distinctive experiences of my life,” he recalls. “Anyone who looks into a great ape’s eyes, a light goes on in your mind: ‘That’s me,’ you think. ‘I am the great ape and the great ape is me.’ It’s eerie and wonderful. … These are thinking, sentient beings.”
Another chill. I know exactly what he means because I, too, was in Sepilok in the '80s and had my own life-altering orangutan encounter. While watching several red-haired, long-armed youngsters swing and clown in the jungle trees above me, one slid down a nearby rope, pressed his face to mine and stared soulfully into my eyes.
There really are no words. But I know with utter certainty that we are connected in some profound way, two great ape species linked by our common ancestry and shared kinship on Earth.
Sadly, these family ties are increasingly frayed — forgotten or disregarded by the human species in its quest for more land, money and power. The result: dangerously dwindling great ape populations — only 300 Cross River gorillas, 700 mountain gorillas, and 25,000 bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) are left in the wild, imperiled by habitat loss, war and illegal poaching.
Raffaele, who has roamed the planet writing for Smithsonian and Parade, embarked on a “holy quest” to visit every species and sub-species of great ape and to witness firsthand the precarious plight of our closest cousins.
Raffaele’s voice is calm — OK, I was expecting more hyperbolic Aussie ranting à la Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin — but I quickly find that Raffaele is the real deal, possessing an unflappable fearlessness that I obviously don’t possess.
Through Borneo, Uganda, Rwanda and other volatile regions where most of the great apes are unlucky enough to live, he encountered murderous rebels, gun-toting poachers, political corruption and devastating deforestation (not to mention nearly dying in a suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan while on another assignment).
But he also got up-close-and-personal with dedicated conservationists risking their lives to save the apes and even bonded with a few unforgettable ape characters — Humba, a mighty silverback Congo mountain gorilla who approached Raffaele not in typical rage but with leaves in his mouth (a sign of peace); Kanzi, a brainy bonobo capable of high-level communication; and serene Outamba, the highest-ranking female in her chimpanzee group and mother-extraordinaire.
This is part edge-of-your-seat adventure story and part love story (i.e., one man’s love for the great apes) with a not-so-happy conclusion. “The message is there’s hope — but only if the world does something,” Raffaele says. “If it doesn’t, there’s pretty much no hope.”
Not that he has a surefire answer — more like a collection of potential answers. One is to preserve “small pockets of habitat that will be heavily defended by anti-poaching patrols.” Maybe not ideal, but better than zoos, which Raffaele calls “barbaric — like putting a human in a bathroom with glass walls for the rest of your life and letting alien creatures stare at you every day — you’d go crazy in a month.”
Raffaele is unabashedly passionate about the need for a superstar great ape champion — think Oprah Winfrey or Michelle Obama. Another option: petition the G-20 nations to pledge $10 million each annually to create guarded ape habitats.
Meanwhile, Raffaele is going it alone, hoping his single voice is loud enough to rouse his fellow great apes (the ones running the world) to action. “I’m just one person,” he says, “but at least I’m trying.”