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Q &A WITH ALEXANDER “SANDY” HARCOURT





Curtis Abraham


Dr. Alexander “Sandy” Harcourt is a British-born American primatologist specializing in Africa’s rare and endangered mountain gorillas. In the 1970s, he conducted field studies in Rwanda under legendary mountain gorilla expert Dian Fossey and would later temporarily take the helm as director of the Karisoke Research Station. Along with wife Kelly Stewart Harcourt, he is the co-author of the 2007 book “GORILLA SOCIETY: Conflict, Compromise, and Cooperation Between the Sexes”.


Societies develop as a result of the interactions of individuals as they compete and cooperate with one another in the evolutionary struggle to survive and reproduce successfully. Gorilla society is arranged according to these different and sometimes conflicting evolutionary goals of the sexes. In seeking to understand why gorilla society exists as it does, Alexander H. Harcourt and Kelly J. Stewart bring together extensive data on wild gorillas, collected over decades by numerous researchers working in diverse habitats across Africa, to illustrate how the social system of gorillas has evolved and endured.

Gorilla Society introduces recent theories explaining primate societies, describes gorilla life history, ecology, and social systems, and explores both sexes’ evolutionary strategies of survival and reproduction. With a focus on the future, Harcourt and Stewart conclude with suggestions for future research and conservation. An exemplary work of socio-ecology from two of the world’s best known gorilla biologists, Gorilla Society will be a landmark study on a par with the work of George Schaller—a synthesis of existing research on these remarkable animals and the societies in which they live.


“Gorilla Society is a lucid, fascinating, compelling, and comprehensive synthesis of decades of ecological and behavioral research not only of gorillas but also of apes and monkeys in general”, says George B. Schaller, the pioneering German-American gorilla expert and senior conservationist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). “The analysis of the complex evolutionary forces that shape a society is superb. It will provide insight and direction to all future primate field studies.”



HOW DID YOU COME TO BE BORN IN KENYA?


My father was a modern linguist, ready to become a diplomat (his father was in the Tank Regiment in World War I and II), when he saw an advertisement for someone to run a cattle and sheep ranch in Kenya during the owner’s absence. My Mother worked daytime in the National Museum in Nairobi, and in a bar on the weekends in the ranches nearest town. It was in the latter that my parents met.


AS A KID, WERE YOU INTERESTED IN NATURE?


I was definitely a naturalist, loved family walks in the countryside, always took binoculars and a bird book with me, received “Birds of the World” from my parents as a congratulatory present when I passed whatever exam it was we took when we were 13 in Britain, and I got into 'public' school. I read S.A. Barnett, but it was his book on animal behavior that turned me on. Unlike most students today who in their twenties still do not know what they want to do, I remember from an early age knowing that I wanted to do animal behavior.


WHAT ASPECT OF NATURAL HISTORY DID YOU WANT TO STUDY?

I was thinking that I would study bird behavior, but chance took me in a different direction. Dian Fossey gave a lecture in Cambridge at the end of which I asked her if she needed help in the field. She did. And in 1971, I spent the summer in the Virunga National Park doing a census of the gorillas there. I subsequently did my PhD field work there, and returned later with my wife, Kelly Stewart to direct Dian Fossey's research center while Dian was in the USA.


In between times, I [conducted one census] of gorillas in [what was then] Uganda's Bwindi Reserve [now Bwindi Impenetrable National Park]. Afterwards, I and my wife Kelly also conducted a census in Nigeria's Cross River region, which has also been turned into a national park, thanks to our reporting of several dozen gorillas there. In total, I have spent over five years in the field with gorillas.


WHAT WAS MOST MEMORABLE ABOUT YOUR FIRST VISIT TO THE VIRUNGA GORILLAS IN CENTRAL AFRICA’S GREAT LAKES REGION?


I first went to the Virungas to conduct a census of the gorillas in the summer between my last two years of university. The scenery [was] certainly memorable. The Virungas are extinct volcanoes rising thousands of feet above the surrounding plain already at roughly seven thousand feet. I also recall] the crowd of Rwandan men [who wanted jobs as porters] two thousand feet up to Dian Fossey’s research center at 10,000 feet.


My best memories is walking alone through the forest to and from the gorillas. The gorillas, once habituated to my presence, going about their lives a few feet from me and completely ignoring me. The raunchy smell of the Silverback. The sounds of a contentedly eating group of gorillas-the munching of course, but mainly the grumbles, growls, hums as they communicated the information that they were likely to stay where they were for some time.


I compared the gorillas to human royalty: majestic individuals moving slowly through the vegetation, eating as they went-much like elephants.


WHY GORILLAS?


The interest in gorillas was both emotional, they are wonderful animals, and scientific. At the time I started, the Seventies, their society seemed to be an unusual one compared to others that were known. The absolute dominance of the adult male of a group differed strongly from the descriptions then of baboons and macaques, in whose societies females ruled. The other apes, chimpanzees and orangutans, had fundamentally different societies from the gorilla. By comparison to the gorilla, a society in which a female stayed with a male for years- the chimpanzee and orangutan are essentially solitary. Why the differences?





HOW DID YOUR FAMOUS IN-LAWS VIEW THE WORK YOU AND KELLY WERE DOING?


I hoped that he [Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart] and Gloria [Stewart’s wife and Kelly’s Mom] admired our work. I suspect that they did, given their many safari visits to Africa including one to the gorillas, and their membership and support of the Leakey Foundation.


WHAT OTHER INTERESTS DO YOU HAVE?


Other interests of mine along the years have included the biological basis of cooperation, the evolutionary biology of male genital anatomy in primates, and reproductive behavior among mammals, conservation biology (in other words the biological basis for conservation decisions).


YOU ALSO HAVE A SCHOLARLY INTEREST IN THE BIOGEOGRAPHY OF PRIMATES INCLUDING US HUMANS.


[In other words,] why we are, what we are, where we are. I have been working on primate biogeography since 1999, and [I] am still working on it. [In my book], Human Biogeography, I compare the biogeography of humans to that of other primates, and see strong similarities. Biographically, we are simply another species. If all one looked at were our biogeographic patterns and you were not told that you were looking at human data, you would not know that the subject was humans. You have heard of tropical BIOdiversity, well it’s exactly the same with cultures-human cultures are more diverse in the tropics than outside them.


CAN HUMAN BIOGEOGRAPHY OR BIOGEOGRAPHY GENERALLY BE USEFUL IN THE PREVENTION AND MITIGATION OF GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE?


Not while grotesquely greedy civilizations and people exists, no. That’s not a flippant reply. Biogeography can tell us what has happened, and what might happen in different parts of the world but knowledge doesn’t seem to stop rampant greed and over-exploitation.[But]I guess the more we know about it, the more we can do something about it. Not stop it, but at least react appropriately to it?


BIOGEOGRAPHICALLY, ISLAND SPECIES ARE VERY INTERESTING. ARE THERE ANY GENERAL BEHAVIORAL DIFFERENCES OF ISLAND SPECIES COMPARED TO THEIR PARENT POPULATIONS ON THE MAINLAND?


One that immediately comes to mind is lack of fear of predators, or of adaptations to escape from predators. As far as I can remember, Darwin wrote about this. In the Galapagos, for example, I have walked right up to nesting birds and they haven’t reacted at all.


CAN ISLAND SPECIES, FOR EXAMPLE, TEACH US ANYTHING ABOUT BIOLOGICAL EVOLUTION GENERALLY?


The influence of predators. These often absent (at least initially) on islands, and so island species don't evolve adaptation to evade [them]. Which is why they go extinct so quickly when the predators arrive -witness early sailors walking up to dodos and picking them up, and taking them on board.

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