Review of ‘Chimpanzee Travels’

Chimpanzee Travels
Dale Peterson

Dale Peterson's Chimpanzee Travels is an altogether different kind of wildlife book. An English professor in Massachusetts who has traveled widely in Africa and learned enough about primates to call himself an "amateur primatologist" (which may be stretching it), Peterson is spontaneous and whimsical where Schaller is organized and methodical, idiosyncratic and solitary where Schaller is a member of the team. They share a willingness to put up with whatever it takes to learn about their critter of choice, in Peterson's case the chimpanzee.

Peterson never quite lets us in on the purpose of his book, except to say that he wants to find out what he can about the status of chimps in Africa. The result is more of a travel book than a nature book, recounting his sometimes comical, sometimes painful odyssey as he wings it with backpack and notebook from one country to another, often arriving with nothing to go on but a name he heard from someone he met at the last stop. He seems a good-natured sort, Everyman adrift in a vast continent, waving cash in the air as he heaves with the mob at a railroad ticket window, uncomplainingly idling beneath a tree while a mischievous chimp rains urine on him, discovering with glee how chimps use a rock anvil and another rock as a hammer to crack nuts. He turns up wherever the chimps are, including Jane Goodall's research outpost in Gombe, Tanzania (where we get only the sketchiest glimpse of Goodall). Why focus on chimps? "Because . . . they're people," he quotes an anthropologist by way of explanation.

Peterson's artlessness makes his book's revelations seem inadvertent, but I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. As with pandas, poaching is a constant threat to chimps; illegal hunting and wildlife smuggling are depicted in this account as being major African industries.

The book eventually sorts itself out and becomes a travel diary, with one vignette galloping after another, some interesting and some otherwise, while the diarist engages in a nonstop quest for chimps, excitement, Cokes, good water and a warm bed. In one splendid scene Peterson and a friend watch two male chimps have sex with a female in a Ugandan forest. Just as the action concludes, three pink-cheeked British bird-watchers appear. Peterson's friend tells them that they just missed the sex. "Yes," one replies soberly, "we thought we'd wait until it was over."

The book's best moments are the surprise encounters with the always fascinating chimps in the wild: "They started coming down to the ground, climbing down, riding down thin and bending treetops, jumping down-chasing each other down. We heard screams and grunts and chorusing cries, the thump thump thump of feet running across branches, a surfy bursting through leaves. . . . the larger one . . . stood slowly, began swaying and vocalizing with noisy inhale-exhalations, and suddenly burst through some vegetation on the ground and flew into an ancient, half-decayed tree trunk that exploded. . . ."

More moments like that might have lifted Peterson's rambles to a higher plane in his interesting genre of travel-cum-wildlife writing, but unfortunately we don't get many more. My suspicion is that the trouble lurks in a couple of lines of author-to-author dialogue near the end of the book: "I was drifting down there in Pointe-Noire, troubled, fragmented and frustrated, while the money just continued to drain out of my pockets. What was I looking for? I had no idea."

Donald Dale Jackson is a writer living in rural Connecticut.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.