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Years of living cheek-to-jowl with chimps has made Craig Stanford top banana in the world of ape science.

by Gilien Silsby

When Craig Stanford finished graduate school, like any other newly minted Ph.D. he went in search of a job. Business wasn’t exactly booming for ape experts, though. He sent out a slew of letters, but received only one nibble: a hand-written note from legendary primatologist Jane Goodall that sounded more like a dare than an offer.

“She wrote that if I wanted to come to Gombe and be a guinea pig, that was up to me,” Stanford recalls. Goodall’s terse lines, scrawled on a crumpled piece of paper, launched Stanford’s career. A dozen years later, he is one of the world’s leading primatologists and an associate professor of anthropology in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Craig Stanford apes the termiting behavior he observed among the chimpanzees of Gombe.

As director of the Bwindi-Impenetrable Great Ape Project in Uganda and co-director of USC’s Jane Goodall Research Center, he spends several months a year in remote corners of the globe, spying on our closest living relatives: wild chimpanzees and mountain gorillas.

An expert on primate behavior, ecology, evolutionary theory and human evolution, Stanford has traveled to 25 countries and set up three major research sites. “I think if I add it all up, I’ve spent a total of seven years away from home,” he calculates.

That hasn’t always been easy on his wife and their three children. But, as Stanford points out, “we’ve really known no different. My wife [USC colleague Erin Moore, a cultural anthropologist] and I were hopping from country to country from the very beginning. Often we took the children,” he says.

These days, Stanford mostly travels alone. “The kids are in school, and we can’t all just pack up and go. Plus, there are many more dangers,” he says, alluding to a rise in terrorist attacks in Africa.

Even without the threat of political violence, primatology isn’t for the faint-hearted. Field researchers like Stanford don’t just study apes from a distance. They live with them in the wild, getting to know many individual animals up close and personal.

That intimate knowledge is evident in his recent book, Significant Others: The Ape-Human Continuum and the Quest for Human Nature. A popular-science page-turner, the slender volume presents copious examples of human-ape similarities. From cognition and diet to culture, language and parent-offspring relations, Significant Others takes readers on an intellectual quest for humanity’s biological roots, gathering evidence from contemporary primate behavior. Rape, sexual infidelity and infanticide are some of the darker propensities Stanford finds in common, along with such higher attainments as social intelligence, empathy and logical problem-solving. A gifted wordsmith, Stanford wins uniform praise for prose that, in one reviewer’s words, “combines a vivid, almost poetic descriptive sensibility with a refreshingly deadpan rationality.”

Jane Goodall and Freud, then Gombe’s alpha, get reacquainted during one of the primatologist’s regular visits to the 42-year-old research site.

Stanford’s more than 80 published scientific papers have also dealt extensively with gorilla-chimpanzee interactions. Indeed, just as Significant Others went to press, the ape-watching professor made a major discovery about mountain gorillas and chimps. At his study site in Bwindi, Stanford and USC doctoral student John Bosco Nkurunungi witnessed the two species sitting a few feet apart in a tree – something never observed before by scientists.

The chimps were feasting on ripe fruit in an enormous fig tree. “They were so eager to eat they didn’t mind us sitting and watching them,” says Stanford, who was at the time perched on a hillside 50 yards away. “A few moments later, a huge chimp joined them. I said [to Bosco], ‘Hey, who’s that? We’ve haven’t seen him before.’ We studied him through binoculars, and we realized this was a gorilla! A minute later other gorillas arrived, including a 400-pound silverback male. We couldn’t believe our eyes.”

The encounter lasted all of 20 minutes. The gorillas sat quietly eating and watching the chimps. Then they left. “I suspect this happens often, but no one had ever seen chimps and mountain gorillas together before,” Stanford says. Not surprising, given that it took Stanford years to gain the chimps’ trust to the point where they’d submit to being watched by him.

The significance of the chimp-gorilla meeting could be profound. “We want to know if gorillas and chimps compete for food, nests and other resources,” Stanford says, “partly because it may give us clues about how early human species competed with other early human species in the same habitat.”

The breadth of Stanford’s research interests is remarkable. He’s already at work on his next book, to be published later this year. Tentatively titled Walking Tall, it explores the origins of the upright gait. (For a foretaste, check out “Myth No. 1, The Clumsy Biped,” from his fallacy-blasting introduction to Significant Others: “At each stage of the evolution of bipedalism, we can be sure that the proto-walker was good at what it did,” he writes. “Far from the common depiction of a stooped, shuffling, beetle-browed ape-man, the earliest hominids combined the agility and strength of a modern chimpanzee with an increasingly human-like intellect.”)

Recently he collaborated with USC gerontologist Caleb Finch on a study of the relationship between meat-eating and longevity in humans versus primates. Last summer, Oxford University Press published Meat-Eating and Human Evolution, a collection of scholarly essays co-edited by Stanford. Two earlier books – The Hunting Apes: Meat Eating and the Origins of Human Behavior (1998) and Chimpanzee and Red Colobus: The Ecology of Predator and Prey (1998) – dealt with the role of hunting and meat-eating in chimp society.

“When Craig began research on the chimpanzee-red colobus relationship at Gombe Stream in Africa, I regarded it as the single most exciting field project on primates,” says UC Berkeley anthropologist Katharine Milton, Stanford’s doctoral advisor back in the 1980s. “I used to just sit by my computer hoping Craig would send me an e-mail with some new and fantastic piece of information on the hunting of those monkeys by the chimpanzees,” she says.

Turning on its head traditional explanations for the evolution of big brains in early humans (large brains came first; advanced communication, tool use and bipedalism followed), The Hunting Apes advanced the paradigm-shifting theory that male-dominated hunting and meat-sharing patterns were the stimuli for – not the product of – bigger brains.

Stanford’s interest in zoology started even before he knew what the word meant. As a young boy in Roselle Park, N.J., a small town outside New York City, he kept a collection of critters. “I was a natural history geek,” he laughs. “I was fascinated with snakes and other reptiles.”

In a rare close encounter at Bwindi, an adolescent mountain gorilla named Nteganisa stares down Stanford after “bluff-charging” him.

After high school, Stanford enrolled at Drew University, where he first encountered anthropology. “My roommate had a textbook, and one day I picked it up and couldn’t stop reading. I was hooked. I knew this is what I wanted.”

Stanford went on for his master’s in biological anthropology at Rutgers University, then spent a few years teaching high school math in New Jersey and “trying to figure things out.”

Hitchhiking through Costa Rica one summer, he happened to meet a primatologist glad to take on an unpaid assistant. “Soon I was flying on little planes to rain forests,” he says. “I hung out and volunteered. It was my first exposure to primates in the wild. The trip inspired me to go back to graduate school.”

His first day at UC Berkeley, Stanford met his future wife. Soon the couple was globetrotting to places like India and Bangladesh, where Stanford was studying the ecology and reproductive strategies of the capped langur, an apricot-and-gray monkey who was to be the subject of his dissertation.

It was just before the birth of his first child that Stanford wrote to Goodall (now his colleague at USC as an adjunct professor of anthropology and occupational science). Within a year, Stanford, his wife and their 13-month-old daughter Gaelen boarded a plane for Tanzania’s Gombe National Park.

Mother and daughter settled in a mission outside the park. (“The three of us couldn’t live together because the area was surrounded by chimps and leopards,” Stanford explains.) On weekends, when the family came into the park for visits, they stayed in an open-air cottage covered in wire mesh – a kind of reverse zoo: people inside, wildlife out. Goodall had originally built the house for her own young son.

“My daughter would see the baboons, point to them, and say ‘puppy,’” Stanford smiles, noting that these largest members of the monkey family are “extremely aggressive.”

He stayed in Gombe for the better part of the next eight years, returning to civilization only a few months at a time. During this period, Stanford joined USC as a staff primatologist in 1991. “I was in Africa most of my first two years at USC,” he says. I never intended to be a professor-type. I just wanted to do this research.”

Stanford has since found great satisfaction in being a professor-type. He regularly teaches a popular General Education class on “The Origins of Humanity.” He received the 1996 USC Raubenheimer Junior Faculty Award and the 2000 Phi Kappa Phi Faculty Recognition Award. Last fall, he was appointed chair of the Department of Anthropology.

“Craig Stanford’s career illustrates what the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences does best,” says dean Joseph Aoun. “It gives students the opportunity to learn about research from someone who is making an impact.”

Gaelen in her “home away from home” at Gombe National Park. Stanford: “My daughter would see the baboons, point to them, and say, ‘puppy.’”

Stanford involves several students in his current work on the ecology of neighboring colonies of chimpanzees and gorillas at Bwindi.

“Craig is not only a primatologist, but someone who loves nature and will make others learn more about different aspects found in nature,” says Nkurunungi, who will complete his dissertation on mountain gorilla behavior later this year. “He is physically and mentally strong. On top of everything else, Craig is humorous, sociable and never angry with anyone. If you can’t get along with Craig, then you would find it difficult to get along with any other person.”

As a lifelong field observer of chimpanzees and gorillas in the wild, Stanford has been amazingly lucky. He’s only once been attacked, by a male chimp named Frodo.

“I was on a very steep hill and I saw him coming right at me,” Stanford says. “I did what we always do: I grabbed a tree trunk. But the tree – which stood about 30-feet tall – was rotten inside. I think the chimp knew that. He did a karate kick at the tree, and it fell over.” At the mercy of the powerful ape, Stanford awaited his fate. “He was giving me one of those looks. Then he slapped me on the back and went on his way.”

In March 1999, Stanford’s leafy workplace exploded in aggression not from apes but from armed guerrillas. Hutu rebels attacked a tourist camp on the edge of Bwindi, taking Stanford’s research assistant Mitchell Keiver and 14 Western eco-tourists hostage. Stanford himself had left the camp only days earlier. Forced to march toward the Congolese border, Keiver and five tourists were later set free. Eight others were brutally murdered.

“It was a difficult time,” says Stanford. “For about 48 hours, I had to assume that Mitch had been killed. Once we learned he’d been released, my thoughts turned to whether I could keep my research project going.” The tragedy didn’t end research at the park. “But it was slowed down considerably,” Stanford says.

Bwindi research is now back on track, but Stanford is well aware that the window of opportunity is closing. The great apes have lost nearly all of their forest world. Many have been hunted for their meat or penned up in zoos.

“It’s sad, but in our grandchildren’s lifetimes, apes will probably no longer exist in the wild,” he laments.

Though he is a dispassionate scientific observer, Stanford grows passionate when talking about the plight of apes both in the wild and in captivity. Given our emerging understanding of how blurry the ape-human boundary really is, it behooves us, he argues, to confront the ethical issues surrounding our treatment of our nearest relatives. “The great apes have an intrinsic right to exist with at least a scaled down set of the inviolable rights to which humans feel entitled,” he argues in Significant Others.

Mindful of the conservation crisis, Stanford takes particular pride in training students like the Ugandan Nkurunungi, who did his doctoral research in Bwindi under Stanford’s supervision.

“After decades of white American and British students working with [primatologist] Dian Fossey, USC can be proud to have helped the first African student get a Ph.D. while working with the gorillas,” Stanford says. This “first” reflects not just an advance in academic diversity, but a ray of hope for the great apes.

“Ultimately,” he explains, “Africans will decide the fate of [the apes], not us.”

Photos courtesy Craig Stanford

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