Ever since I was little, I have always loved primates. I remember watch movies like MVP: Most Valuable Primate, a film about a chimp who learns to play hockey, on a regular basis. In the same genre as Air Bud movies, I found that I drastically preferred these films that featured humanoid animals. Years ago I saw a video about a lion named Christian, who was raised in a church yard in Britain as a cub (thus his name) and was cared for by two men in the 70s. After a year or two, the men had to release Christian into the African wild. Years later, they returned to visit Christian to see if he recognized his childhood friends. Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love You blared in the background as Christian leaped into their arms, just as he did as a cub. Christian memory and display of emotion fascinated me, and I became curious about animals' mental capacity. A link in the 'Related' section on youtube featured a beautiful lowland gorilla named Koko. In the video, she played with a kitten that she named "All Ball." In the clip her trainer talked about how Koko had expressed her desire to have a kitten, and I was hooked. Koko amazed me, and she inspired my interest in the possibility of pursuing primatology, possibly as a career.
Primates are Homo sapiens closest relatives, and they provide insight into the science behind communication. The largest contributor to this research has been Koko, a female western lowland gorilla. She has learned a staggering 1,000+ signs from American Sign Language, and can understand thousands of english words spoken by her trainers. Koko has received copious amounts of media attention, ranging from meetings with celebrities like Mr. Rogers and Robin Williams to her expressed desire for a kitten to her own youtube channel that features videos from Koko's daily life.
Despite Koko's status as an icon, little attention has been paid to the plight of the rest of her species. Native to central Africa, the western lowland gorilla (Gorillagorilla) loses 5% of the population annually due to poaching. Hunting for gorilla pelts or meat is illegal, but poaching is still the greatest threat to lowland gorillas. They antagonize locals by raiding fields, and are subsequently seen as pests. Logging is another prominent threat to western lowland gorillas. Their population was also decimated in the early 2000s by an outbreak of ebola among several populations. As a result of these factors, western lowland gorillas have found a spot near the top of endangered species list, classified as "critically endangered," according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Several groups have taken action to protect and conserve this endangered species.
How similar are humans and gorillas' nervous systems? How has the western lowland gorilla population changed? What factors contribute to its fluctuation? What are the benefits of analyzing apes ability to communicate? What will the results of this research mean for the future? What are the limits of primate cognition and ability to communicate? What are the plans to continue this research? What strategies are conservation groups using to protect gorillas? What has the response been to the poaching of gorillas? Are there any plans to provide Koko with a new companion? To what extent are gorillas capable of feeling and expressing emotion?