General Description

A Primate’s Memoir is a nonfiction travel and adventure narrative where Robert Sapolsky takes the reader through his own experiences as he studies baboons in the southern grasslands of Kenya. His hypothesis is proven wrong as he discovers low-ranking males have higher levels of testosterone and are, therefore, more susceptible to stress related disease than higher ranking males. Robert transitions from discussing the baboons, their social relations, and their health as a population to his own human interactions quite seamlessly. He gives readers a peek into life in Kenya, which includes disputes with corrupt rangers and wardens, loving relationships he develops with locals, and occasional crimes and kidnapping. Readers share the highs and lows of Rob’s experiences in a fast-paced, informal style of writing. Sapolsky has an uncanny ability to relate to readers and make his feelings yours; you laugh and cry through his learning experiences and tribulations. In particular, readers mourn the loss of baboons in Rob’s troop due to a preventable outbreak of TB. While clearly devastating, Sapolsky’s research takes an immediate turn and analyzes the spread of TB in the wild. He expresses his animosity towards all responsible for the bovine TB spread to his precious primates and leaves a lasting impression of the tourism industry in Kenya and the lasting harm it can bring to animals.

Topic & Main Argument

The primary topic of the book is the baboons and Robert’s relationship with them over time. After all, the title is named “A Primate’s Memoir,” which indicates the significance of the baboons as the primary focus of the novel – not to mention the first and last chapters introduce the baboons and provide closure with them. Without the baboons, Sapolsky would have never ventured to Kenya and developed from the 20 year old he was then to the Stanford professor and MacArthur recipient he is now. Not only did Robert fall in love with the baboons, his anecdotes make readers fall in love with the baboons, as well, which makes the novel’s ending very emotional.

While it’s clear Robert loves Kenya and the people he’s met within it, he certainly critiques common, and almost expected, injustices which regularly occur in economic tourism and politics, with an underlying understanding of poverty. His biggest critique serves as the climax of the memoir when his baboons are endangered by the pile of garbage outside Olemelepo Lodge. Initally, Sapolsky darts a baboon from a different troop who has a necrotic hand, weak breathing and pulse, a fever, and a persistent cough. Diagnosis: Tuberculosis, an immense threat to primate populations due to its ability to spread like wildfire and wipe out most who come in contact with it. Ultimately, the TB originated from a man, Timpai, who sold TB infested cows to the lodge as food for tourists. Scraps were left unguarded, in the open for any animals to feast on… including Robert’s beloved baboons. Because tourism is essential to the Kenya’s economy and because tourists, frankly, wouldn’t care Tampai put them at risk, Robert was left helpless as TB runs through his troop.

The memoir is a commentary on the effects of corruption and desperation of poverty which drives people to live in a world with immediate results, at times risking the lives of humans and precious animals. It’s clear that Rob does not condemn Kenyans generally, as he loves his people and their culture, however, tourism continues to endanger the lives of baboons, whom he dearly loves.