Out of Africa: wisdom of the Great Apes

I sometimes think I was drawn to Africa by a chimpanzee. I met my wife, Chizo Okon, in the Accra Zoo, in Ghana, where she served as the surrogate mother for an orphaned chimpanzee.

I once took a photo of another chimp, this one orphaned by hunters in Cameroon who killed his mother. With the help of an American doctor and an armed soldier from Cameroon's army, we rescued this chimp, which we found staked to a post, sweating in the beating sun.

The chimp was the victim of two old technologies: the rifle and the chain saw. Loggers in the Congo basin need food. The hunters find them bushmeat. Together, a cycle of rationale incentives -- timber fetches money the world over and loggers must eat -- conspire to doom the species of animals that share more DNA with humans than any other.

New technologies are part of the campaign to save Africa's chimpanzees from extinction. At a protected sanctuary deep in the jungles of Cameroon, near the mighty Sanaga River, Dr. Sheri Speede protects some 50 chimpanzees of various ages. Electrified fences keep out wild chimps that might harass her own. Security cameras record human intruders. Advanced medical techniques enable Dr. Speede to provide birth control to the female chimps, so they don't bear babies in captivity. And various technologies -- from boats to cars and even the Exxon oil pipeline that runs near the sanctuary -- help her to reduce the abuses against the chimpanzees who remain in the forests near her.

Honestly, I am not much of an animal person. I've lived my whole in cities, surrounded by modern technologies seemingly designed for my comfort. In an African jungle, I constantly protect myself against malaria. I drink only boiled water. I eat only cooked food or fresh fruit. The idea of handling wild animals is ridiculous.

On the morning of the day we rescued this chimnpanzee, I prodded and cajoled Dr. Speede to drive 100 miles to check out a report we'd received of a baby chimp for sale. We drove for hours, the three of us in a battered truck, navigating bad roads and managing our worsening moods. In the final leg, we were carried across a wide river on a small ferry owned by the timber company. On the other side of the river, we stumbled on an hunters camp. When the soldier drew his gun, the hunters put down their machetes and rifles, and I released the frightened chimp.

He clung to me. Dr. Speede, in recognition of how I pestered her to attempt a raid, named the Great Ape after me. She calls him Zachary.

When we returned before nightfall to the sanctuary, I held the chimpanzee in my arms, showing him off to Dr. Speede's astonished co-workers. Proud of myself, I stood in awe of this animal's intelligence and grace -- until the moment he urinated all over me.

*

As I write these words, I sit in the comfortable Mermaid Inn of Menlo Park, California. I am not far from my current assignment -- helping a merry band of Finns, Swedes and Pakistanis, experienced journalists all, gain an introduction to both Silicon Valley and how American journalism cover innovation. The third day of our journey together is coming to an end, and I listen on my Ipod to the late Momo Wandel -- an extraordinary Francophone singer from West Africa -- groan out the first song from the Last King of Scotland soundtrack. When I think of the technological innovations spawned by Silicon Valley -- the very computer I write with, my new Iphone, even the magical badge that permits me to open the door to our office -- I am awed by the power of ingenious people to steadily improve ordinary life.

Yet the chimp pictured in my arms, so well protected by Dr. Speede, is a reminder of the fragility of our technological systems. How easily can human tools upset the mysterious balance of our world.

I hope the innovators of tommorrow can somehow restore that balance, if not for me, an old man, than at least for the generations that come after me. Can the youth of today somehow break out of the peculiar trap, whereby our tools enhance and diminish our humanity at the very same time?

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