Featured Book: Tales from Gombe

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TalesFromGombe(Issue 68, Autumn 2014)

Tales from Gombe

By Anup Shah & Fiona Rogers (Natural History Museum)
Hardback, 324 pages, ISBN 9780565093501

The old man to whom this book is dedicated will never read a word of it. Frodo was, after all, a chimpanzee. Yet so remarkable are the animals described in the latest work from husband-and-wife team Anup Shah and Fiona Rogers, that were Frodo alive today I wouldn’t have put it past him.

Tales from Gombe is an intimate and stunningly illustrated account of the Kasakela chimpanzee community at Gombe Stream on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. These animals have been the subject of intensive study ever since Jane Goodall first made their acquaintance in 1960, but surely no other cameras have lingered on them so lovingly.

Shah is one of the world’s best-known wildlife photographers. But this is much more than another African coffee table book. The intensity of the images speaks volumes about the photographers’ involvement with their subjects. The portraits, especially, have a Rembrandt-like depth, with every wrinkle and whisker steeped in meaning and emotion. And the length of this study – the photographers returned repeatedly to their subjects over twelve years – allows the characters to evolve on the page, passing from youth to age before our eyes.

The gripping commentary, meanwhile, not only documents in minute detail the lives, loves and politics of the chimps, but also raises profound questions that extend, by implication, to humanity. And though the authors strive to avoid anthropomorphism, the stories certainly put the reader through the wringer. “As for Glitter,” we learn of one female, “no one can guess the grief she must have been going through ever since losing her baby to her mother.”

One word of warning: this book is about chimpanzees and nothing else. Don’t expect a portfolio of Tanzanian landscapes and wildlife. Its focus is single-minded – and it is all the more powerful as a result.

Reviewed by  Mike Unwin

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