DINGMANS FERRY, Pa. - For Wendy and Alan Kaplan of Dingmans Ferry, a trek to Cameroon to help save gorillas and chimpanzees began with a trip to the Explorers Club in Manhattan with Tamara Singer, who spoke previously in Milford about her adventures among cannibals.
But the Kaplans would find themselves among people who sell primate meat to underground markets in New York and elsewhere, decimating the primate population.
At the Black Bear Film Festival in Milford, the Kaplans showed their film about visiting a Cameroon primate rescue center, “Whisperers and Witnesses: A Visual Diary,” written and directed by Alan Kaplan, narrated and produced by Wendy Kaplan.
“The Explorers Club has amazing lectures, so, as members, we try to attend as many as possible,” said Wendy Kaplan. “The night we attended veterinarian Sheri Speede’s lecture on Sanaga Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center in Cameroon, there were items you could bid on as part of a fundraiser, including a trip to Cameroon to stay at the rescue center. Since we make films about wildlife and indigenous people, we left a bid, thinking this would be a great idea for our next film. We won!”
However, when Kaplan introduced the film at the festival, she said, “Most of you will probably never go to Cameroon, for good reasons.”
For one, the country lacks tourist infrastructure, including guides, she said. Plumbing is primitive — toilets are holes, hovered over by insects. Water is dangerous. And the Kaplans were greeted by soldiers because of a war going on in parts of the country. But they were moved and impressed by the rescue work of Speede and her staff.
They told the too-typical tale of Dorothy, the chimpanzee, who was orphaned when poachers killed her mother, and was then enchained at a hotel to amuse patrons — for 40 years. Speede rescued her, helping her over her physical and temperamental ailments. When Dorothy died years later, Speede gave her a funeral. Other chimps emerged from the woods and gathered by the sanctuary fence to watch, as the film showed.
The Kaplans also described the kinds of interactions they had with the rescued primates. The gorillas disdained Wendy and sometimes threw things at her, she said, but chimps were friendlier.
“Carla looked in the mirror and admired herself. She loved my hair clip,” said Wendy Kaplan. “But one bared his teeth and got a stick. For Alan, the gorillas displayed their best.”
They let Alan come close to film them, and the film includes close-ups of gorillas and chimps that show how distinctive their faces, personalities, and relationships are, with their fights, reconciliations, affection and play. The film also showed the close and complex relationships between rescue staff and their charges. Chimps clung to one woman, several at a time, like children. She became a foster mother until they were older and put in one of seven groups among the 64 primates on the four-acre site.
Wendy noted that chimpanzees are closer to humans genetically than any other species. As for gorillas, she surmised that they accepted her husband and not her because, she said, “Alan looks more like them.”
However, at the rate that natives and poachers are killing primates for meat, said Alan, “They’ll be extinct by the end of the century. In 1900, Africa had two million primates. Now there are only 200,000.”
He sees ecotourism as providing the best way for primates and natives to survive.
“Primates and ecotourism are what they have. Without primates, they’ll stay in poverty. If ecotourism works, they’ll have other industries,” he said. For that reason, Cameroon natives are being taught farming for sustenance.
“If you save the primates, you save the people,” Alan said. The Kaplans hope screenings of their film will inspire contributions. “For Wall Street, the $24,000 a year needed for primate support at the rescue is nothing,” he said.