Academic journal article African Studies Review

Visions of Apes, Reflections on Change: Telling Tales of Great Apes in Equatorial Africa

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Visions of Apes, Reflections on Change: Telling Tales of Great Apes in Equatorial Africa

Article excerpt


This article explores stories that some central Africans in the middle Sangha River basin and in northern Gabon have told about gorillas and chimpanzees. Such tales have provided opportunities for Africans to debate the consequences of their engagements with outside people, resources, and processes. But their meanings have proliferated in different social, cultural, and historical contexts. Central Africans have used such stories to make claims about access to and control over human productive and reproductive labor, forest resources and spaces, and other forms of wealth; racial and ethnic relations; and human existence and death. These stories provide critical insights into the reasons people hunt or protect great apes, and they illuminate the complex social and political tensions generated by conservation interventions. Great ape tales thus offer conservationists insights into the challenges and promise of managing an important game population, as well as the potential social consequences of their interventions.

Résumé: Cet article explore des récits racontés par des africains dans le bassin du milieu de la rivière Sangha et dans le Gabon du nord sur les gorilles et les chimpanzés. Ces types de récits ont permit aux africains de débattre des questions de leur contact avec des populations, des ressources et des modes de fonctionnement venant de l'extérieur. Cependant, les significations de ces récits se sont disséminés dans différents contextes sociaux, culturels et historiques. Les africains du centre ont utilisé ces récits pour renforcer leurs vision de l'accès et du contrôle de la production et reproduction humaines, des resources et espaces forestiers, d'autres formes de richesse, des relations ethniques et raciales, de la vie et de la mort. Ces histoires fournissent des aperçus significatifs sur les raisons pour lesquelles les gens chassent ou protègent les grands singes, et elles mettent en lumière les tensions complexes sociales et politiques générées par les initiatives de conservation. Les récits sur les grands singes offrent ainsi des vues conservatrices sur les défis et les promesses de la gestion d'une population importante de gibier, en même temps que sur les conséquences sociales possibles de leurs propres initiatives.

You know, the Baka say that if a Baka dies, he transforms himself into a white person. And if a Bangando dies, he transforms himself into a gorilla.

(Bangando man, Cameroon)

Apes share something of our human mental world.... Apes have a legitimate mental existence.... They have perhaps a mind and even possibly a consciousness not so very different from ours.

(Dale Peterson, Eating Apes)

The boundary between people and apes is indistinct. Whether in Western contexts of conservation biology and activism or in central African contexts of village life, people and apes are understood to be fundamentally different kinds of beings, even as the unavoidable commonalities among these primates are recognized and debated. Indeed, social commentary on the relationships between people and apes can reveal core values that not only demarcate boundaries between culture and nature, but also highlight social boundaries and differences between human selves and others, between haves and have-nots, and between the exploited and the powerful. Western conservation discourse, as exemplified by the comment above by Peterson, aims to evoke empathie sentiments in the Western public whose ethical barometers are gauged to measure the noble plight of nonhuman, and thus inherently innocent, victims. Yet from their value-laden yet geographically and culturally distant perspective, Western audiences rarely consider the meanings that central Africans, who live in close proximity to great apes, attribute to them.

This article begins an exploration of central African narratives about relationships between people and apes. While these stories take on different meanings over time and space, we suggest that it is through such ape tales that Africans past and present have depicted and debated social differences, social tensions, and relations between self and other. …

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