sepe is starting to like the school. He often struggles to stay focused, since it is more fun to engage in a rough game with his new female counterpart, Michelle. This small chimpanzee belongs to the most endangered subspecies of chimpanzees – the western chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes virus).
At a very young age, he became an orphan when his mother was killed by poachers. For a group of orphans residing at the Chimpanzee Conservation Center (CCC) in GuineaGoing to school means daily excursions into the lush forests of High Neger National Park, where caregivers teach them the skills they will need to navigate the challenging environment and complex social lives of their wild counterparts. It takes several years before baby chimps are ready to be released, and a successful recovery is a long way off.
Once common around the equator AfricaChimpanzees have disappeared from most of their historic area. In 2003, a population of between 170,000 and 300,000 wild individuals was estimated across a very patchy distribution covering 1 million square miles (2.6 million square km). There are four recognized subspecies of chimpanzee, among which the western chimpanzee stands out for its many unique behaviours. Some communities of this subspecies have been shown to make wooden spears to hunt other primates, crack nuts by balancing them on a root and grinding them with a stone, soak themselves and play in water to cool off on hot days, and travel and forage. At night, they regularly congregate in caves to socialize and sleep. Many of these behaviors can be passed down culturally through social learning across generations.
Researchers are understandably eager to understand this rich cultural diversity, although unfortunately they are under significant time pressures. After reports of an unprecedented decline, in 2016 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) upgraded the threat status of the western chimpanzee from endangered (the status of every other subspecies) to critically endangered. According to the Western Chimpanzee Conservation Action Plan 2020-30, 10,000-52,000 wild chimpanzees are believed to remain in West Africa, with Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone being the subspecies’ strongholds. Guinea harbors over 60% of the remaining population. Importantly, more than 80% of chimpanzees in Guinea are found outside protected areas, so remoteness and inaccessibility are key factors in ensuring the survival of wild populations.
Guinea is rich in mineral resources such as bauxite (used in electronic devices), and this sector is expanding rapidly. Deforestation and habitat fragmentation caused by large-scale development projects (such as mines and associated infrastructure), as well as the expansion of subsistence farming (due to increasing demographic growth and soil infertility), are gradually taking away the territories of chimpanzees,” says Tatiana Homeley, CCC Chair Although traditional (and true) beliefs about kinship have historically helped preserve chimpanzees in some regions of Guinea, poaching to sell children as pets and adults as bushmeat has become one of the most serious conservation problems.” This is a byproduct. It is unfortunate that the natural habitat of chimpanzees is being rapidly transformed by human activities. Chimpanzees that live in mosaics of forest plantations often rely on crops and orchids to compensate for the loss of their natural food resources, often resulting in retaliatory killings and chimpanzee orphanhood as a by-product, she says. Almost half of western chimpanzees live within 5 km of a human settlement or road, and the distance will continue to dwindle if urgent measures are not implemented to control human pressure.
More than a haven
Started in 1997, the CCC aims to rehabilitate and release chimpanzees who have been victims of illegal trafficking, or who have been injured or orphaned as a result of revenge killings. Nearly 26 years later, the CCC has grown into a leading institution for the conservation of African apes, and its message has permeated different strata of Guinean society.
Most importantly, by ensuring the lifelong care and welfare of confiscated individuals, the CCC plays an integral role in supporting national authorities in combating the illegal trade in live chimpanzees. They boost the local economy by feeding the chimpanzees local produce (vegetables, fruits, and grains), which also helps raise environmental awareness about the importance of protecting this threatened subspecies.
Cedric Camber, a Congolese vet with a great deal of experience working with monkeys, is a key part of the project. His expertise becomes especially crucial when sick chimps, often orphaned children, arrive at the sanctuary. There are currently 62 chimpanzees living on the reserve, 18 of whom are still babies or adults who have a lot of learning to do if they are ever released back into the wild. The stories surrounding their arrival at the shelter are heartbreaking. Four-year-old Marco was saved after his mother was shot for meat. The bullet hit the baby’s mouth and forced the vets to remove several teeth. Siwa, a six-year-old female, was rescued from a home that was kept as a pet. The owners dressed her in children’s clothes and shaved her head, imitating a human haircut. Along with Tola, Pumbaa, Bingo, and two other children who never beat poaching injuries, year-old Pepe was one of six baby chimps to arrive at the sanctuary in 2022.
Notably, CCC is the only sanctuary for chimpanzees currently returning individuals to their natural habitats. But the situation is looking increasingly sick for the release project. “Many recovered chimpanzees cannot be released due to the physical or psychological trauma they suffered prior to their arrival. Even worse, habitat loss combined with human expansion hampers the availability of suitable release sites,” says Miguel García, Spanish primate zoologist in charge of conservation activities. In CCC, including the launch project. Suitable release sites should encompass the typical home range of a chimpanzee community (between 15-60 square kilometres) and provide sufficient food and water throughout the year while not being part of another group’s existing territory. Four domains have been evaluated recently so far, and none of them have met the release requirements. A promising evaluation study is underway in the Ndama Game Reserve in northern Guinea, near the border with Senegal. The recently established Moyen Bafing National Park offers another note of hope. This park shelters 15% of the country’s chimpanzee population and was created to offset the influence of two bauxite mining companies in the Fouta Jallon area. But Tatiana Homeley has concerns. “There is a growing commitment from the Guinean government to make compensation mandatory for the mining sector; however, compensation should be a last resort and payment preferred to avoid impacts on chimpanzees and other threatened species.” Securing sustainable funding for this national park and reserves like the CCC would make a huge difference to chimpanzee conservation in Guinea.
Why do we care about western chimpanzees? Throughout history, the faulty intuition that humans are radically different (and even superior) to other animals has been used to justify our exploitative attitude toward nature. By holding a mirror in front of ourselves, the apes force us to abandon this “human exceptionalism”. In 1758, the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus not only dared to place humans alongside apes and apes within the order of “primates”, but even assigned humans and apes of the same sex, to turn down. Subsequent genomic analyzes would validate Linnaeus’ hunch, confirming that chimpanzees and bonobos are indeed more like humans than gorillas. The striking similarities to chimpanzees become apparent when considering almost any aspect of our biology. For example, our immune systems are so similar that many infectious diseases in humans are also capable of infecting chimpanzees, the gestation period lasts about nine months, and infants have a prolonged infancy (up to 10-12 years) in which they need to stay close to their mothers and learn a range of skills that will be crucial to their adult life. At the same time, nearly every week we are shown new evidence indicating that tool use, empathy and other abilities widely believed to be exclusive to our species are also present in other primates. As Darwin suspected, the gap between humans and apes (once thought to be an impassable abyss) appears to be “one of degree, not of kind.” By anchoring humans firmly within the animal kingdom, our ape relatives have provided us with the right framework for understanding our place in nature, replacing our dismissive attitude toward other animals with one based on respect and curiosity. Ironically for the self-proclaimed “thinking monkey,” we are so obsessed with finding what makes humans “uniquely human” that we have only recently begun to appreciate what makes chimpanzees “unique chimpanzees.”
We must act now if we are to preserve the rich cultural heritage of our closest relatives. Failure to implement urgent measures in order to balance chimpanzee conservation with the cumulative effect of large-scale evolution would mean not only that the CCC’s rescued orphans would never again know freedom, but also the irreversible extinction of the western chimpanzee.