Chimpanzees and humans share many characteristics. Firstly, we humans share almost identical genetic DNA with chimpanzees. Like us, chimpanzees also have personalities, they perform different facial expressions, can use tools, and can experience a range of complex emotions such as empathy and grief. Chimps can even outsmart humans on some memory tasks.
Chimpanzees have cultures, just like humans
Another way in which chimpanzees are similar to us humans, is in the presence of culture. Culture was once thought to be unique to humans, but researchers have found that chimpanzees, and other species, also have cultures. Culture is the characteristics of a group or population. For example, one population may share a language that others do not.
Chimpanzees are just like humans in that they also have cultural traditions. Different groups of chimpanzees will have different foraging techniques that they have passed down generations. Just like we humans do, they share these skills and techniques with one another, and soon traditional skills are formed. For example, one group of chimpanzees in Uganda have developed the technique of using leaf sponges to collect water from tree holes, and this has not been seen in any other groups.
Different groups of chimpanzees may have the same tools to hand, but each group will develop their own techniques and behaviours unique to them.
Snares used by humans for hunting can cause serious injuries and can even kill chimpanzees. Many groups of chimpanzees have been found to suffer from these painful traps. Chimpanzees in Bossou, Guinea however, have learned how to break and deactivate dangerous snares. One group of chimpanzees have spontaneously learnt to deal with snares, and they are passing this information around their group. They may even be passing this down through generations, in the same way that human parents pass on skills to their children.
Chimpanzee cultures are disappearing
Sadly though, these chimpanzee cultures are disappearing. Where humans are encroaching onto chimpanzee habitats and changing the landscape, the chimps are reverting to basic skills. The loss of these skills can be damaging to the chimpanzees though, as many are associated with accessing different foods. Researchers from Germany have spent 10 years observing 144 groups of chimpanzees in Africa to find out what is happening to their cultural traditions. They found that the chimp groups who were living close by to humans were performing fewer cultural behaviours. This mirrors the loss of many human languages as no one speaks them anymore. Researchers suggest that this may be due to the encroachment upon habitat, isolating groups of chimpanzees, and impacting upon social learning.
Chimpanzees can suffer too
Humans can respond to traumatic events by developing mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. Humans are not alone in this, as chimpanzees can also suffer from these illnesses too. Researchers have found that chimpanzees who have suffered traumas such as being separated from their mother, forced into social isolation, or having been experimented on, displayed the signs of PTSD and depression, in a similar way to humans. This has important implications for how they are treated, as chimps can suffer just like us.
Many chimpanzees live in poor living conditions, often socially isolated in substandard zoos and private collections around the world. Many hundreds are also used in circuses and in the tourism industry, forced through fear and punishment to perform meaningless tricks or to have their photograph taken with tourists. Chimpanzees are wide-ranging social animals with diverse physical, social, behavioural and psychological needs. Poor captive facilities and the use of chimpanzees in entertainment causes chimpanzees to suffer unnecessarily, and may cause them severe mental illnesses.
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Pan African Sanctuary Alliance
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Chimps have culture
Encroaching humans are changing chimpanzee culture
The main threats to the chimpanzee are habitat loss and hunting for bushmeat. The relative severity of these threats differs from region to region, but the two are linked. Degradation of forests through logging, mining, farming, and other forms of land development is contributing to the decline of primate species throughout tropical Africa. Remaining habitat patches are often small and unconnected, leaving chimpanzee populations isolated. This may be why chimpanzees are losing their cultural traditions.
In many areas, poaching for meat and live infants is common, as is unauthorized logging, mining and farming. Logging activities improve access to formerly remote forest areas, leading to increased hunting pressure.
'Bushmeat' has always been a primary source of dietary protein in Central and West African countries. However, in recent years, hunting for bushmeat, once a subsistence activity, has become heavily commercialized and much of the meat goes to urban residents who can afford to pay premium prices for it.
The effect of the bushmeat trade on chimp populations has yet to be evaluated, but a study in the Congo showed that the offtake was 5-7%, surpassing the annual population increase. In addition, apes are often injured or killed in snares set for other animals. Infant chimpanzees are frequently taken alive and sold in the cities as pets.
Click here for more details on how you can help chimpanzees in the wild;
Jane Goodall Institute
Pan African Sanctuary Alliance