When a segment on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” features Des Moines bonobo Kanzi on CBS, it will be the latest in a flurry of international media appearances by Great Ape Trust’s apes and the scientists who study them.
Great Ape Trust is a research and conservation center based in southeast Des Moines. Its work centers mostly on communication and social behavior studies involving bonobos, which are similar to chimpanzees, but the center also has a couple of orangutans.
The trust’s international conservation work includes a massive chimp study, reforestation of a degraded forest and work on creating sustainable jobs for residents in Rwanda. That project was featured in The Des Moines Register last year.
The “Oprah” segment examines Kanzi’s ability to communicate using abstract symbols called lexigrams. He also understands some spoken English and held separate music jams with Paul McCartney and Peter Gabriel when he lived in Georgia.
Over the past two months, the trust’s work has shown up in TIME magazine, USA Today, CNN and PBS. A novel based in part on the research center, Ape House by best-selling author Sara Gruen, came out in
Inspiration from gorillas
Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend is the genial, articulate son of an inventor who made a fortune selling meat-processing equipment.
His father, Ray, founded Townsend Engineering and used his self-made wealth to take Ted around the world.
In 1966, on the first of three one-month trips to Africa that the two made together, Ted recalls the group sitting around the campfire and agreeing that education holds the answer to many of the world’s problems. Poverty and environmental degradation spread in a panorama across the African landscape before them.
“So what are you going to do about it?” Ray asked his son.
“It was the first time it had occurred to me it was up to me to do something,” Townsend said.
He made several more trips to Africa over the years, including one in 1996, when he saw devastation left by years of war, capped by genocide. Phones at hotels didn’t work. Rubble was everywhere. The stench of death still fouled the air.
Townsend had come to see the rare mountain gorillas in the Virunga mountain range.
Then an avid runner, he confidently ascended a slope that began at 7,500 feet. “The guy said, ‘See the top of the hill? That’s where we’re going.’ I thought, ‘You have to be kidding.’’’
The trails that now help tourists see the seven groups of gorillas that are habituated — they go about their business in the presence of humans — didn’t exist.
He started to lose his breath. His energy dropped. But one thing soared: His pulse, which hit 160, “about my limit,” he said. “It was five hours up, four hours down, one hour with the gorillas. I was near death.”
Yet Townsend was so inspired by his encounter with the rare gorillas — one of whom rushed by him at close range — that the experience helped cement his drive to work on ape conservation and research. That led to Great Ape Trust, which led to the drive to save Gishwati and its chimps.
“Our only chance to save great apes and ourselves is in learning to think of us all as sharing one planet, one atmosphere, one ancestral genome, one future,” Townsend said. The gorillas “motivate me every day.”
In 2004, Townsend opened the ape trust, hiring a team of prominent primate scientists from the National Zoo and Georgia State University to study the apes’ behavior and communications.
Then, in August 2007, James Kimonyo, Rwandan ambassador to the United States, visited Iowa for a speaking engagement at William Penn University. Townsend invited Kimonyo to his house for dinner.
The two discussed possible conservation projects in Rwanda. That led to contact between Townsend and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who liked the idea of establishing the country’s first conservation park. So did former U.S. President Bill Clinton and his Clinton Global Initiative, which endorsed the project and its very specific goals.
“In learning and working to restore this remnant forest,” Townsend said, “we will demonstrate a model worthy of emulation across Africa and beyond.”