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Pygmy chimps: an intellectual challenge


Pygmy chimps and a lend-lease operation
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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It was a mad trip because the guests came from Washington to Kinshasa. I was in East Africa at that time and tried to fly from Nairobi to Bukavu. Because Kivu-Bukavu which is on the Lake Kivu, which is in eastern Congo. Well there was a plane via Zairean airline, actually also the East African one- All the transportation in Africa was North-South at that time. It wasn’t cross-country except for the Ethiopian airline, which was a very good airline; the others were almost hopeless and had occasional flights. Well I managed to get on to some East African flight, which was then cancelled. So there was no way of getting across and that whole delegation, because there were a lot of government officials from Zaire and so on, who were all coming and everything was going to meet in Bukavu. I the Chairman- there was no way of ever reaching them. Telephone calls were very difficult to make, and I remember going to the American Embassy in desperation, and they suggested: go to Burundi and we’ll talk to the American Ambassador there and they’ll try to help you. And then, you’re just across the lake. But you know, Burundi wasn’t exactly on my, at the time Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi wasn’t exactly one of my main, you know, destinations. But I did do that, and what was amusing was that the American Embassy in Burundi at that time was the smallest Embassy we had. There only were an Ambassador and I think a couple of secretaries. And of course, they hardly ever saw anyone, so they were delighted that someone came and put me up. And I had a very good time in Burundi, in Bujumbura, and then I went across the lake and met the rest of them. At a time when these cities were abandoned cities, because there had been a lot of civil wars and so called Zimba revolution. This- well there was a horrible civil war at that time. Still- The remnemts of them still exist. And that’s when we were- I had a good time and I describe all that in the- Well the long shot was that I had to go through the dictator Mobutu. Mobutu sticks his nose into everything. And they were actually willing to give us an island, so we went to the central, to the Équateur province, in the central Congo. And that’s where we established that but he would only do it on- But then we realised the first experiments better be done in the United States. So we needed to get some baby- some Pygmy Chimps to the United States. And he said it would only be a lend-lease operation. He would lend them to the- to the Yerkes Centre in Atlanta but they would eventually have to be shipped back. Which is OK, except there were a few zoos in Europe and I think the San Diego Zoo, which were the only ones who already had Pygmy Chimps. Except that they now have different names, they’re called Bonobos, but at that time it was Pygmy Chimps. But the first few of them were shipped eventually to- to Yerkes. He got as a gift from Yerkes, an Orang-utan, for his- for his own zoo. Mobuto’s was probably the first Orang-utan who ended up in Africa, because that’s a species of course from South East Asia. And lo and behold, some of the really key experiments on baby chimps, which were done and published, were done on the descendants of that particular one. There have been major studies carried out on the learning behaviour of the Pygmy Chimps, on their sexual behaviour. It’s very typical of humans. The few ones- the few animal species who do sex in the missionary position, I mean just to give and example. And even the courting behaviour, the masturbatory behaviour, it is very human, the frequency of intercourse rather different from chimpanzee behaviour. And one marvellous example of learning behaviour, which has been demonstrated particularly in Pygmy Chimps at- by a woman named Sue Savage, who’s sort of the Jane Goodall of Pygmy Chimps. And these were all really based on- they all came from that particular source. Again very few people realised that they, even she did not know how these ever ended up in Atlanta. But it all started at that point. But I use that not so much as a travelogue in my title, but rather as a, you might say, metaphor for my interest in third world- science in third word countries. And while this one was, in some respect an abortive one because Zaire went completely to pot and there was no chance of establishing that particular research centre there, but something happened anyway from this Pygmy Chimp research.

Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was best known for his work on the synthesis of the steroid cortisone and then of a progesterone derivative that was the basis of the first contraceptive pill. He wrote a number of books, plays and poems, in the process inventing a new genre, 'science-in-fiction', illustrated by the novel 'Cantor's Dilemma' which explores ethics in science.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Tags: Washington, Kinshasha, Nairobi, Bukavu, Congo, Yerkes Centre, Mobutu Sese Seko, Sue Savage, Jane Goodall

Duration: 5 minutes, 28 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008