By Arwa Lodhi
Native to West and Central Africa, they live in savanna woodlands, grasslands and tropical jungles. They are the closest DNA relatives we humans have–we share about 99% of the same genes. But now the chimpanzee is in danger.
They have already disappeared completely from four African countries, due mainly to the effects of civil war, deforestation and, disgustingly, commercial hunting for their flesh for the bushmeat trade. Of the countries in which they remain, they are usually endangered.
They’re just like us
Like us, Chimpanzees are highly social animals. They naturally gravitate to other species when given the chance, such as was the case with Anjana, the famous chimp in these photos, who ‘adopted’ two white tiger cubs named Mitra and Shiva, who were brought to live with Anjana and other species at The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (TIGERS) in South Carolina. There have been myriad documented cases of chimps bonding with other animals, ranging from bears to pigeons, but of course, in the wild, they normally stick with their own species.
Their communities of between 15-80 members are led by one dominant male. Communities consist of loose and flexible groups of males and females within a fixed home range. Again, like us, members can leave and join communities freely, but their welcome depends on the availability of resources and their sexual status–fertile females are always welcome, whereas aged monkeys are usually not.
Again like us, chimpanzees enjoy eating fruits, leaves and other plants, honey, occasionally eggs and even meat. Their human-like hands allow them to eat these foods easily, but they are also able to throw objects at enemies and to create tools. Notably, they will poke a stick into a termite mound to feed on the insects, and can crack nuts open.
Because they are such social animals, they have created calls as a kind of language. However, it is mainly their lack of vocal range that impedes them from forming speech–they are capable of learning sign language, and can become quite creative with what they learn. The most famous example of a chimp learning how to ‘speak’ via sign language is probably Washoe, who was captured by the US Air Force in 1965 for their space program.
Washoe’s speech revolutionised how humans think of Chimps. For example, when her trainer, Kat, failed to show up for several days, Washoe initially ignored her, seemingly annoyed at her lack of attention. But when Kat explained through sign language that she couldn’t be at the centre to train Washoe because her baby had been sick and eventually died, Washoe stared at her, looked down, then peered into Kat’s eyes, and carefully signed ‘CRY’, touching her cheek and tracing a small path where a tear would fall on a human (Chimps can’t cry).
After having worked with Washoe, her trainers insisted that great apes deserved a moral status, equal to that of humans; many other trainers of Great Apes were also amazed at the emotional range and intelligence of these animals. This sparked the creation of the Great Ape Project, which hopes to “include the non-human great apes [chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas] within the community of equals by granting them the basic moral and legal protections that only humans currently enjoy”, in order to place them in the moral category of “persons” rather than mere animals.
We at Eluxe think this would be a great idea, and it may help pull apes back from the brink of extinction. Moreover, knowing that all the Great Apes are to some extent endangered should be a wake up call to how fragile any species on the planet is, no matter how intelligent they may be.
Until such a law is passed, however, you can still help save the chimp, our closest relative, by clicking here or here and donating to one of these very worthy conservation efforts. Don’t the likes of Washoe and Anjana deserve it?