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The Arts
11.19.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Frans Lanting
Monkey Business: A Senegalese chimp thinks things over.

Evolution in Action

Santa Cruz resident Frans Lanting's groundbreaking photos of chimps are presented in a special fundraiser for the Seymour Center.

By Michelle Camerlingo


When it was first reported last year that a West African female chimp was seen sharpening a branch with her teeth and wielding it like a spear, headlines appeared in more than 300 news and science outlets, including New Scientist, The New York Times and NPR's Science Friday. The Smithsonian Institution even requested one of the spears.

First documented by Jill Pruetz, an anthropologist at Iowa State University, it was the most widely talked about primatology news since the reports of infanticide and cannibalism at Jane Goodall's site at Gombe in the 1970s. Before Pruetz's discovery, toolmaking for hunting had been considered distinctly human behavior.

Photographer and conservationist Frans Lanting and his wife and partner, Christine Eckstrom, traveled to a remote region of eastern Senegal and western Mali to photograph this group of chimpanzees who are breaking the boundaries between apes and hominids. Lanting's photographs appeared in the February 2008 issue of National Geographic. An exhibit tailored for the couple's annual Seymour Center fundraiser, "Chimps at the Edge," comes to the Rio Theatre this week.

"These chimps are interesting and relevant. They have never been studied before in this kind of environment," says Lanting.

Unlike their better-known rain forest relatives, the Fongoli chimps do not live among the treetops; instead, they spend their days in the woodland savannah, an environment very much like that in which humans evolved. Because of this, the community is valuable to scientists who study the origins of hominids.

Eckstrom says the chimps--with whom Pruetz has spent four years--came to be familiar with the researchers; she could see the recognition in their eyes. "They looked eerily humanlike, the way they walked and moved," she says. "They were very aware of new people."

The expedition was tough. It included getting up at the break of dawn and hiking sometimes two hours to the chimps' nests. It required lugging 30-pound packs in temperatures that reached 110 degrees.

"Finding the chimps was challenging. There was no guarantee that we'd find them. We'd move around for 10 miles or more a day. On a good day I'd get 30 to 60 minutes of photo content," Lanting says. "We worked from five to nine, not nine to five."


FRANS LANTING AND CHRISTINE ECKSTROM
'Chimps at the Edge,' Saturday, Nov. 22, 3 and 7pm at Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets $20 general/$15 Seymour Center members, available through Logos (831.427.5100), the Seymour Center (831.459.3800) and Frans Lanting Gallery (831.429.1331).


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