August 23, 2007

My Family and Other Primates, Kruger Park 2007 part 2

Follow-up to My Family and Other Primates, Kruger Park 2007 part 1 from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

Monkeys and children are fascinating creatures. Our recent trip to the Kruger National Park in South Africa gave many opportunities to observe their behaviours: so similar to us in many ways, and of course just so naturally comic.

1. The boy and his bushbuck, at Letaba
2. Monkeys, not such distant relations
3. Swinging through the trees, near Shingwedzi
4. Lions, a critical assessment
5. Drifting on the thermals, from Shingwedzi to Olifants
6. Elephants are big and grumpy, but fun to watch

Not such distant relations

The little monkey boy lolloped towards the two indignant females, his intent obvious to all but himself. A poorly acted hunchbacked stoop hid his otherwise youthful athleticism, perhaps a tactic to put them at their ease. One day in the future he will be the alpha male of the troop, but for now he is just another buffoon.

He scampered, arms swinging loosely, knuckles almost dragging across the ground as if his species had only recently descended from the tree-tops to explore and exploit savannah Africa. A glint of drool dribbled from the corner of his chattering mouth, sharp white teeth on full display, an ape with a gape. Primitive. And then, with his face close to that of the smaller of the girls, he began his flamboyant mating dance.

In her doctoral thesis, the  primatologist Dr Jane Goodall described just such behaviours amongst the chimpanzees of the central African rainforests. Here, in the Kruger National Park of South Africa, the little monkeys were dancing to a similar over excited tune. We watched from a distance, awed by this snapshot of our own simian ancestories. So closely related, as DNA proves, and yet so far.

His two feet repeatedly left the ground almost at the same time, bouncing a short distance into the air, right foot slightly ahead of the left with the syncopation of a jazz band. Landing with a dusty thump, he kicked up a fine cloud of sand towards the young ladies, at last forcing them to acknowledge his presence. Arms outstretched like some great bird struggling for flight, he flapped and bounded on the spot, grunting and blowing. They were, in response, deathly unimpressed.

The young male continued. Throughout the performance, his balance precarious. The older of the females tempered her disdain for the precocious ape with fascination, albeit with nothing other than the improbable physics of his art. Sensing failure, the young male only became more frantic in his attempts to make the girls notice. This impetuosity led to his downfall, when his left foot found an unexpected obstacle: his right foot seemed to have its own rhythms and reasonings. He paused for a second down on his posterior, and then sprang to his feet whilst shooting out both arms as if to say: that was all part of the act, i'm so good I even fall over with style. The older female passed him a sideways glance, and then continued with her own more interesting occupation, examining the jaw bone of a long dead elephant.

Making no progress with the girls, the monkey boy temporarily broke away in order to pick a small stick off the ground. The stick was alas imperfect. There followed a few seconds of motionless consideration, the inner machinations of his brain made visible on his face. We were reminded of George W. Bush 'deep' in thought. A metaphorical lightbulb flashed above his head. Quickly he stripped away the surplus twigs and leaves, creating the perfect stick with which to scrape the bare earth at the feet of the females. Eureka, the primate makes a tool.

He is evolving. But not quickly enough it seems. The females escaped with haste, speeding up a gnarly old tree. The older girl quickly climbed to a couple of metres, her small feet delicately wrapping around its painfully rough bark. The smaller of the two found herself a more gentle route of escape, clambering along a fallen log. Too fast and agile for their persuer.

Finally, the young male was visibly disappointed, staring up at the older female he vocalised his confusion. As experienced monkey watchers, we could easily decipher his primitive chattering:

"Where's your shoes?"

The little monkey boy speaks! But the young females do not quite understand. They are of the Southern African sub-species. He is a member of the superficially similar but actually very different Homo Sapiens Warwicensis, originating in central England, but having been released into the Southern African biome by misguided tourists (it has since caused great damage to the environment in and around the Kruger Park, incessantly raiding kitchens for scraps).

In the field, young females of the Southern Africa sub-species of the Homo Sapien ape can be identified by three distinctive traits: greater than expected physical strength, an ability to climb any surface barefoot (as observed above), and girly pink clothes with a light dusting of sand.

From the safety of her perch, high up in the tree, the older female (Jessica, aged 6) turned towards the observing zoologists and spoke:

"He's a bit of a funny bunny."

"Yes," I replied, "but he is only two years old. His name is Lawrence."

"My sister Rebecca is four."

"Lawrence is on holiday, he is from England."

With Jessica taking the lead, the girls finally became interested in Lawrence. He was, after all, only two years old and English. It was then perfectly fine for him to be a bit of a funny bunny. For the following thirty minutes they explored the trees, the elephant jaw bone, and the various items of furniture and decoration around the restaurant at Shingwedzi Camp. The girls outclimbed and  outclambered him.  When he fell they picked him up. When he got nervous they comforted him and encouraged him on. After half an hour they were all equally dusty, but very happy.

Three little monkeys playing in the dirt of the Kruger National Park, South Africa.

Shingwedzi drummers
Lawrence entertaining the ladies at Shingwedzi Camp restaurant

Singwedzi drummers 2

Funky monkey

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