14th July 2018. The very first World Chimpanzee Day.
58 years to the day since I arrived for the very first time in what I then referred to, in my letters home, as “Chimpanzee Land”. At the time it was the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve in what was then Tanganyika – a British Protectorate. Today, of course, it is the Gombe National Park in the independent country of Tanzania.
I was 26 years old back then, and 58 years is a long time. But if I close my eyes and let my mind free to wander into the past, I can relive that boat ride along the shore of Lake Tanganyika.
I was with my mother, Vanne (the British authorities had refused permission for me to go on my own). We were accompanied by the Game Ranger, David Anstey, and we were being given a ride in the Kibisi, the government launch. Our little flat bottomed aluminum boat, that would be our only link with the outside world, was being towed along behind. We passed fishing villages, and could see the silver of the sardine sized dagaa laid out to dry in the sun after the night’s fishing. And then David Anstey pointed out where the Reserve began. But in those days the fishermen were still allowed to set up camps along the beach during the dry season – about May to November.
What I remember most is looking up at the rugged terrain, the dense forest that marked the streams that flowed down the steep slopes from the top of the Rift Escarpment. The forest was slightly less dense between the streams, and there was grassland on some of the ridges, and along the top of the escarpment.
And I remember wondering how on earth I would FIND the chimpanzees living there, let along study them. But my main emotion was excitement – finally my childhood dream of living with and learning from wild animals was becoming reality.
And it all became even more real when, after helping to carry our few supplies to our proposed camp site under some palm trees, close by the clear fast running Kakombe Stream, and setting up the ex-army tent that Vanne and I would share, I was free to climb the opposite slope until I could sit, looking over the lake. And though I only met a troop of baboons who threatened me, shaking branches, slapping the ground, the big males occasionally showing their enormous dog teeth in wide yawns that were intimidating canine displays . Finally they moved off leaving the intruder to her dreams.
As many people know, from books and magazine articles and interviews around the world, the chimpanzees at first ran away from the strange white ape. Gradually they came to accept me.
It was David Greybeard who first began to accept my presence, it was David Greybeard who demonstrated that chimpanzees can not only use but MAKE tools – using grass stems to “fish” termites from their underground nests, picking leafy twigs and making them suitable for the purpose by stripping the leaves. Today we know that chimpanzees in different parts of their range across Africa use different objects for different purposes. And we can define these as cultures – one definition of culture being behaviour passed from one generation to the next through observation, learning and practice.
Today we know that chimpanzees (and bonobos) are closer to humans than any other creature. We share over 98% of the composition of our DNA with them, and there are close similarities in composition of blood, the immune system and anatomy of the brain.
More exiting for me was learning how they use similar non-verbal communication gestures and postures such as kissing, embracing, holding hands, patting one another, begging for food by holding out a hand, palm up. They stand upright and swagger at each other in threat, wave sticks or throw stones in threat. They are capable of brutality and a kind of primitive warfare between males of neighboring communities during which victims may be killed in vicious gang attacks. They are capable of loving, compassionate and altruistic behaviour. They have emotions such as happiness, sadness, fear, despair , anger. They have a sense of humour. They may grieve a dead family member or friend.
Indeed, they are so like us that they have helped to break down an imagined barrier that science once maintained (like some religions) separated humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. (That is what I was told when Leakey sent me to Cambridge University for a PhD, even though I had never been to college. But luckily my childhood teacher had convinced me that in this respect they were wrong – and that was my dog, Rusty!
My early days at Gombe – the best days of my life when I was not only learning about the chimpanzees but experiencing the magic of the rainforest, have been vividly brought to life by the National Geographic’s recent documentary “Jane”, brilliantly directed by Brett Morgan, and produced by Brian Burk. And the sounds of the forest – the birds, the insects, the frogs and the murmur of the streams and sound of the rain pounding on the foliage – were recorded by Bernie Kraus, the celebrated soundscape ecologist. Coinciding with this first World Chimpanzee Day, this movie has been nominated for no less than 7 prestigious Emmy awards .
The focus on chimpanzees does not come a moment too soon. When I began my study Gombe was part of the great Equatorial Forest Belt that stretched from western East Africa across the great Congo Basin to the west African coast. Chimps lived in 25 nations – somewhere between one and two million back then. Today they have gone from 4 of those nations and everywhere their numbers have decreased. In 1960 four communities (about 50 individuals in each) made their home in Gombe – but apart from the two central communities, their members often ranged into adjoining forests. By 1990 a flight over Gombe showed an oasis of forest surrounded by completely bare hills where the expanded human communities struggled to survive.
Across their range chimpanzees are threatened by deforestation, the bushmeat trade, snares set by hunters for antelopes, bushpigs etc, the live animal trade (mothers shot to steal their infants to sell for pets and entertainment – today especially to Asia), the human diseases to which they are susceptible but have no resistance.
The Jane Goodall Institute is working in Tanzania, Uganda, DRC, Burundi, Republic of Congo, Guinea, Senegal and Mali on chimpanzee research and conservation programs. We have also established sanctuaries to care for orphan chimpanzees, confiscated by government officials: Tchimpounga in the Republic of Congo and Chimp Eden in South Africa. And we work closely with two other sanctuaries, originally established by JGI – Ngamba Island in Uganda and Sweetwaters in Kenya JGI-Global is working to re activate our ChimpanZoo program around the world. This encourages studies of chimpanzees in zoos and, importantly, works to always increase captive conditions.
There is one cause for celebration on this first World Chimpanzee Day. In 1960 chimpanzees were being used as subjects in medical and pharmaceutical research, and also as human surrogates in space research. Most of this work has now been ended. The National Institutes of Health in America agreed to release all its 400 or so chimpanzees into sanctuaries.
I do hope you will join us on this day. Help us raise awareness. Become a Chimp Guardian. Make a donation.
Together we can ensure that our closest relatives continue to inhabit the forests of Africa and captive chimpanzees have a better life.