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Robert M. Sapolsky


Love, Death and Baboons in West Africa

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2002).

Robert Sapolsky is now Professor of Biology and Neurology at Stanford University but as a young man he went to East Africa to study baboons, and he continued with this research intermittently for over twenty years. The book is in part about this work but there is a great deal else besides. It is also the narrative of Sapolsky's growing up, as reflected in the titles of the various sections: The Adolescent Years, The Subadult Years, Tenuous Adulthood, and Adulthood, and it includes accounts of various journeys in Africa that Sapolsky undertook, some of which sound fairly alarming. The writing is excellent, and I found myself laughing aloud in places at some of his adventures; but there are also darker tones, particularly at the end when he relates how many of the members of his baboon troup died appalling deaths from tuberculosis caught from infected meat thrown out by an unscrupulous cattle slaughterer.

One of the first things that Sapolsky had to learn to do was to anaesthetize individual baboons so that he could take blood samples from them. To do this he used a blowpipe, which took a lot of practice. His descriptions of these manoeuvres, and of the baboons' often successful attempts to outwit and frustrate him, are hilarious. He makes it clear that he became personally attached to many of the animals he studied and made no attempt to avoid ascribing personalities to them; contrary to scientific etiquette at the time, he gave them individual names - mostly taken from the Old Testament. Other animals have walk-on parts as well, including buffalos, elephants, giraffes, and soldier ants, which Sapolski finds the most intimidating of all.

There are numerous descriptions of humans too, especially the Masai. Sapolsky attempted to convince a couple of Masai warriors that humans and baboons were quite closely related, but this idea was greeted with incomprehension and ultimately resentment; eventually things began to turn nasty and the warriors threatened Sapolsky with their spears, at which point he quickly backed down and agreed that humans and baboons had nothing in common at all.

The Masai warriors certainly appear to have been formidable. Sapolsky recounts how, when their cattle were stolen by Kuria tribesmen from Tanzania armed with automatic weapons, the Masai set off in pursuit armed only with their spears. They ran through the bush for two days and caught up with the raiders; assisted by some Masai rangers who arrived at the same time they routed the Kuria, killing two of them for one injured Masai, and recaptured all but six of the cows. Later a government edict was passed forbidding the Masai to continue as warriors, but some old men took to the bush and began to kidnap boys to raise them as warriors in secret.

Among the journeys described here, two or three stand out particularly. In one of these he tried hitchhiking, and became involved with a group of young semi-delinquent Africans on a drinking spree. They semi-kidnapped him and dragged him from bar to bar, not allowing him to sleep or eat, until at last he managed to elude them. In other journeys he was robbed at knifepoint by drunken soldiers and taken as a passenger by a group of Somali truckers who fought with one another at every stop and finally overturned the truck in an area where the local tribesman made a practice of attacking Somalis whenever their trucks broke down or stopped for the night.

It is clear from this book that Sapolsky has formed a deep affection for Africa, and he communicates the sights, sounds, smells and emotions of the place with remarkable vividness.

%T A Primate's Memoir
%S Love, Death and Baboons in East Africa
%A Robert M. Sapolsky
%I Vintage
%C London
%D 2002
%G ISBN 0-09-928667-0
%P 304 pp
%K travel, autobiography
%O paperback edition
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