Kate on Conservation

Nat Geo’s Trimates: Primate poaching, problems and protection

jane goodall with a chimp pant hooting

I can’t get Racing Extinction out of my head. I think that’s the point of a documentary like that, of course, and it must be working, as I keep coming back to it in my mind.

Racing Extinction

Having also recently watched the powerful film How to Change the World, in which Greenpeace’s Bob Hunter constructs the idea of ‘mind bombs’ (the 1960s equivalent of a viral image or video) to instil a message and influence a state/change of mind; I understood the tactic that Director Louis Psihoyos has employed in Racing Extinction.Racing extinction empire state building

But whilst National Geographic photographs of snow leopards and whales illuminating the Empire State Building or lions and clown fish clambering over the Vatican have captured imaginations all over the globe, the mind bomb that’s gone off in my head is: “what was the chimpanzee feeling when he came back and gave Jane Goodall a hug?’

The poignant moment manages to capture the human-like affection that primates are capable of expressing and makes me acutely aware of how we are not that different to our sentient Great Ape counterparts.

Dr Jane Goodall was selected as number 1 on BBC Wildlife Magazine‘s conservation power list this summer, for her lifetime’s work with chimpanzees – including drawing attention to the tragic impact of the wildlife trade.


Through her organisation; the Jane Goodall Institute, BBC Wildlife explains that she spends 300 days a year on speaking tours that take her across the globe. But who is this slight, grey-haired woman with such youthful eyes and smile that they almost betray her years of wisdom?


Everyone seems to have seen the David Attenborough clip  where he shares a special bonding moment with silverback gorillas in 1979, the iconic footage gets shared and re-shared for its absolute magic, but somehow despite this — the plight of Great Apes goes largely overlooked nowadays, in comparison to big cats and critters of the Arctic.

In the 1960 and ’70s, it was different. Under the provision of Dr Louis Leakey; an paleoanthropologist and archaeologist concerned with understanding human evolutionary development, National Geographic funded three separate primate research projects over the two decades, fronted by three extraordinary women: the Trimates


The Trimates: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas were commissioned to study primates to establish their position in human evolution. Goodall researched chimpanzees, Fossey: gorillas and Galdikas: orangutans.

Goodall began conducting her initial study in Tanzania in 1960, and made significant discoveries with regards to their behaviour, social structures, and was the first to discover that chimps used tools (such as sticks, to fish termites out from inside branches and tree trucks), which was a characteristic believed to be exclusive to humans before her work, and one of the things that separated us from our ancestors.

The second Trimate, Dian Fossey set up a research camp in Rwanda in 1967 to begin her study of gorillas. Her story (and its controversies) is documented in the 1988 film, Gorillas in the Mist.


I watched Gorillas in the Mist for the first time this week, to understand more about Fossey’s work and the circumstances surrounding her murder in 1988.

The thing that struck me most about the film was the relentless fight she faced against poachers. Although hunting had been illegal since the 1920s in the national park she resided in in Rwanda, the law was rarely enforced by park conservators, who were often paid a low salary and bribed by poachers.

Dian Fossey and a decapitated gorilla
Dian Fossey and a decapitated Digit. Photo by Ian Redmond.

The scene in which the first silverback that Dian had contact with, Digit (called so because of his having a pose-able thumb – or fifth digit – a feature of apes), is killed by poachers is harrowing. Brilliantly acted by Sigourney Weaver, one can only imagine the pain that Dian felt when her beloved Digit was discovered with his head and hands removed by poachers to be made into gorilla hand ashtrays and medicine in the Asian wildlife trade.

The real-life photograph (shown above) was taken by Fossey’s student, Ian Redmond. Now Ian Redmond OBE; a supporter of Born Free Foundation, a contributor to Born Free’s Wildlife magazine, and someone whom I recently listened to at The Service for All Animals, speaking with Virginia McKenna in memory of elephant Pole Pole.


It always astounds me when these things somehow come together and link in. Perhaps it’s telling of the fact that those involved in the animal rights movements are prolific, dedicating their lives to a cause. Or maybe it’s also a sign that the number of people at the forefront of anti-poaching, anti-wildlife trafficking campaigns are few in number?

I hope it’s the former.

Or perhaps I just seek it. In the summer this year, I visited Lizard’s Point in Cornwall as part of a music mini tour with my partner, and what should I stumble across but a sculpture commissioned in support of the Dian Fossey Organisation and its work with mountain gorillas, raising funds for the cause.

I photographed it at the time, not really knowing much about the organisation or its work, but feeling certain that I would in time. And here we are.


So what of the third Trimate, Birute Galdikas?

Her National Geographic cover story was published in 1975 detailing her work with orangutans in Borneo.  Despite being told by her professors that studying the primates would be impossible, due to their elusive and wary natures, she has continued her work over four decades and today is well-known for her rehabilitation efforts through Orangutan Foundation International.

As with the other two primate pioneers, however, Galdikas’ work is also not without its criticism.

Despite this, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed discovering these amazing ladies’ stories and the education that they bought to the world about our closest relatives in the animal kingdom.

It seems national treasure, Sir David Attenborough,  is one of the only Great Ape champions to have escaped such criticism and controversy, but it’s worth noting that the story neither begins nor ends with him alone.



Want to know more about the threats faced by primates today, and what’s being done to help them? Check out: http://www.bornfree.org.uk/campaigns/primates/

Learn more about Dr Jane Goodall

Want to know what happened when I interviewed Dr Jane Goodall?

Want to know more about Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots Awards?

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