National Geographic March 2013, Part 2

Return to River Town, by Peter Hessler, photographs by Anastasia Taylor-Lind

Hessler was a Peace Corps volunteer in Fuling, PRC in the late 1990s. He wrote three books about his experiences in China, the first of which was named River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, whence this article gets its name.

Fuling is, again, as the title of Hessler’s book implies, on the Yangtze River. It is, in fact, near the Three Gorges Dam, one of the largest dams in the world, and the one that produces by far the most electricity.

In Return to River Town, Hessler chronicles some of the changes that have come to Fuling since the publication of his books. He also takes us to the Baiheliang (White Crane Ridge) Underwater Museum, which protects an archaeological site that was submerged when the dam was built.

The Left Bank Ape, by David Quammen, photographs by Christian Ziegler

I’m unclear on the use of “Exclusive” in the subtitle on this article: An Exclusive Look at Bonobos. Maybe I’ve read the covers of too many gossip magazines in my day, but to me this sounds like the bonobos gave some kind of interview to Quammen that they didn’t give to anyone else. Maybe “Exclusive” means “on just bonobos and no other animals”? I guess I’ll probably never know.

I have to admit that I read this article first. Some of my friends idealize bonobo culture, and I really wonder what’s going through their heads when they say that having sex with an aggressor sounds more pleasant to them than fighting with the aggressor. I finally had to speak up and say that I find anger to be a definite turnoff and submitting sexually to someone who’s angry sounds, well, kind of like rape to me.

Over these past few years, as a result, I have a kind of knee-jerk reaction to the very word “bonobos,” so since I’m dedicated to reading absolutely everything, I figured I’d pull the metaphorical “adhesive bandage” off quickly and read this one first.

And Quammen tells us that things are different for bonobos in the wild than the ones in captivity that gave them their reputation. In the wild, bonobos do fight and it’s apparently not expected for the combatants to have sex with each other. It seems that the excessive sex-focus of bonobos is largely an artifact of captivity. In their natural habitat, in fact, the males have relatively high levels of cortisol, a hormone that increases during times of stress.

As to the title The Left-Bank Ape, bonobos are less likely to engage in outright violence than chimpanzees, however, and spend less time eating meat and more time eating plant-based foods than chimpanzees. Scientists attribute this to the lack of gorillas on their side of the Congo River. The lack of competition from gorillas has led to the lifestyle of the bonobo being, while not completely free of stress, less stressful than that of its cousins across the river.

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