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Work on pygmy chimps didn’t do much for Zaire


Pygmy chimps and a lend-lease operation
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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It was a mad trip because the rest 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 Lake Kivu, which is in eastern Congo. Well there was a plane via the Zairean airline, actually also the East African one... All transportation in Africa was North-South at that time. It wasn’t across-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 even 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 and help you. And then you’re just across a lake. Well, you know, Burundi was not exactly on my, at that time Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi wasn’t exactly one of my main, you know, destinations. But I did do that, and it what was very amusing there.  The American Embassy in Burundi at that time was the smallest embassy we had anywhere. I think there was only an Ambassador and 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 war and the so-called Zimba [sic] revolution. These... well there was a horrible civil war at that time. Still the remnants of it still existed. And that’s when we were... I had a good time and I describe all that in the...

Well the long shot was that it all 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 a... 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 Yerkes Center 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. Incidently, 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 Yerkes. He got as a gift from Yerkes, an orangutan, for his own zoo. Mobuto’s was probably the first orangutan 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 pygmy chimps, on their sexual behaviour. It’s very typical of humans. They are the few one... the few animal species who do sex in the missionary position, I mean just to give you an example. And even the courting behaviour, the masturbatory behaviour there is very human, the frequency of intercourse - rather different from chimpanzee behaviour. And one marvellous example of even 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 where 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 then 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: Bukavu, Congo, Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Burundi, Bujumbura, orangutan, bonobo, Mobutu Sese Seko, Jane Morris Goodall, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh

Duration: 5 minutes, 28 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008