Preserving Wildlife

Conserving Great Apes in Central Africa


By Bethan Morgan, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research

My first encounter with the chimpanzees of the Ebo forest, Cameroon came in 2002, around the time that the scientific community was realizing that they are classified as the most endangered form of chimpanzee in Africa – the aptly-named Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes ellioti). These chimpanzees, as their name suggests, only live in these two countries, and number as few as 3,500 individuals spread over many forest fragments in this densely populated biodiversity hotspot. A few days later, it became achingly clear that the chimpanzees in the Ebo forest, as elsewhere in Cameroon, were being targeted by hunters to supply the commercial trade in bushmeat; our team of Cameroonian biologists witnessed several dried, smoked carcasses among a hoard of many other primates and reptiles in the trunk of a taxi, heading to the city to be sold for food.

Over the years we have spent more and more time in the forest with the chimpanzees and hints about the fascinating lives of these animals have started to emerge. We gradually realized that the Ebo chimpanzees were constructing night nests on the ground, made from bending saplings and terrestrial herbs – a behavior that was generally believed to be restricted to gorillas. We then started glimpsing tantalizing signs that chimpanzees were stripping leaves from the branches of small shrubs, and using the flexible twigs to fish for termites in their underground termitaria, well below the leaf-covered forest floor.

Then in 2005, we witnessed something very special – a small group of chimpanzees selecting quartz stones or dried wooden branches, and using them as hammers to smash open very hard-shelled fruit known as “noisettes.” At that time, the Ebo apes caused quite a stir in the scientific world, because it was thought that this complex and rare behavior was restricted to chimpanzees living in the very west of Africa. Our discovery has raised fascinating questions about the emergence of such complex behaviors, with ramifications for the evolution of complex cultures in humans.  Today, we have video cameras in the forest to record some of these behaviors, and over time, we hope to build an increasingly complete understanding of the life and challenges faced by the Ebo chimpanzees.

Today, things are starting to come full circle – our efforts to provide knowledge of the complex behaviors and clear intelligence of the Ebo chimpanzees is coming to fruition within the local human communities. As the traditional chiefs and villagers around the Ebo forest are developing a pride in their intelligent chimpanzee neighbors, we are seeing the gradual growth of responsibility and desire to protect these animals. Community pressure on those who continue to hunt primates in the Ebo forest is increasing, and great apes, in particular, are now afforded a level of social protection in addition to the legal protection that the Government has promised, once the forest has been made a National Park. Our future research and conservation efforts will continue to be field-based, but with increasing efforts and assistance from the communities who reside alongside the very special Ebo chimpanzees.