Chimpanzee

Heeding the call: Earthwatch expedition to save chimpanzees

Cristina P. in Uganda on her Earthwatch expedition to BCFS.

Primate keeper Cristina P. guest blogs on ZooHoo!

In August of 2016 I received an unexpected call from the Dallas Zoo’s HR director. She informed me that I had been selected as one of the finalists for an Earthwatch Fellowship, and 9 months later I was on my way to an adventure I will never forget.

Our group met up at a hotel in Entebbe, a city on the Northern Shores of Lake Victoria, 23 miles from the national capital Kampala, Uganda. We had only 5 participants in our team – 3 from Australia, one from Switzerland, and myself. Being in a small group allowed us to really form personal connections, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to meet people from around the world, including the great people of Uganda.

Chimps gathered near our cabin in the forest.

We left for the Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS), and 6 hours later we arrived to the most remote location I had ever been. The nearest town was 45 minutes away, I was not going to be in communication with anyone via phone or internet for the next 10 days, and primates were my new neighbors. I could not have been more excited.

We were surrounded by groups of blue monkeys, red-tailed monkeys (also called guenons), baboons and black and white colobus. We saw many bushbucks (a brownish-red hoofed stock) as well as a few genets and civets at night. We heard the nightly calls of the tree hyrax.  Birds were abundant in the area making it a great spot for bird watchers. The butterflies were the prettiest I had ever seen.

BCFS has been around since 1990, and over the years, researchers have noticed that some of the fruit trees (which provide the chimps’ natural food source) have been producing drastically fewer amounts of fruit. The local villagers also believe that chimps and baboons have been raiding their crops more frequently. Could the decline of fruit availability be causing the increase in crop raiding? Could the fruit decrease be caused by global warming? Is this simply part of a natural cycle of the forest? The area had been exploited for many decades by the British for mahogany, so there’s also a theory that maybe as the forest regenerates and trees get taller, there is less sun getting through to the shorter fruit trees, thus affecting their development.

BCFS tries to look at every piece of the puzzle, so many of the tasks we performed were for the purpose of furthering this research. One day we set up mist nets in the forest to catch birds and catalog them, since they are important in spreading seeds (they were released after we were done with measurements, banding and pictures). BCFS field assistants monitor types of leaves and fruit levels on around 1,400 fruit trees in the area, so we assisted in data collection for that project as well.  But most importantly, we observed 2 troops of chimpanzees, which was an experience like no other.

We observed this chimp enjoying a snack.

Some days, we’d start walking before dawn so we could find the chimps as they were waking up. One of the groups, called Sonso has been studied since the beginning of the project and is fully habituated, which means they see the people as part of their environment and do not mind human presence. The second group, Waibira, has been studied since 2011 and are still in the process of habituation. For the purposes of minimizing disease transmission and our safety we were told to keep a distance of approximately 23 feet to the chimps. The only problem with that was the animals don’t know that rule and at times came pretty close to us. It was fascinating to be so close to an animal that is so strong and powerful, yet they seemed to just go about their day as if we weren’t even there.

A chimp is observed with injuries from being caught in a snare.

We also had the chance to assist the snare removal team. In this particular area, chimps are not hunted for bush meat. Instead the targets are bush pigs, blue and red duikers, and bushbucks. Unfortunately though, chimps inadvertently get caught in those, and about 25% of the animals in this area have a snare-related injury. One particular female had gotten caught by a snare 3 different times! They have even been observed trying to free one another from the snares. It was also noted that there was no difference in how the injured chimps were treated by their troop and they seem to eventually adapt to their new reality of missing fingers, toes, etc. Unfortunately some are not so lucky and do end up dying from their injuries. Occasionally the BCFS veterinary team will sedate an injured chimp and remove a snare if the animal is left behind by its troop.

On one of our last days we visited a nearby village to interview the local farmers and learn about the impact that chimps, baboons, and small monkeys have on their crops. Years ago, BCFS helped them identify what kinds of foods would be least appealing to the animals and provided them with seeds, which were then planted near the forest edge. They do this in the hopes that the animals might keep walking further out to search for foods they like better. The farmers depend on these crops, not only for income, but also to feed their families.

Leaving BCFS was bittersweet. I still miss seeing the chimps and all the people I met! But since I’ve returned from Uganda, I have a renewed hope that there are people out there doing amazing things every day to save these animals from extinction.

Categories: Africa, Chimpanzee, Conservation, Zookeepers | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Saving chimps: Help protect one of our closest relatives

Little Mshindi and female Koko share a moment. (Photo by Jackie Smith)

Conservation and Community Engangement Intern Alicia Moreau guest-blogs about Chimpanzee Action Awareness Week on Zoohoo! 

“When you meet chimps, you meet individual personalities. When a baby chimp looks at you, it’s just like a human baby. We have a responsibility for them.” ~ Jane Goodall

Chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than we may think. We share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees and quite a few personality traits.

In 1962, virtually nothing was known about chimps in the wild. Jane Goodall changed all that. She dedicated her life to researching and observing chimps by sharing a special bond with them — she says, “One touch started a revolution.” Goodall is the reason we know so much about chimps and the personalities they possess. They share our emotions of pleasure, joy, and sadness.

Chimpanzees are very social animals and thrive in communities of about 15-20 consisting of both genders. However, they tend to feed, travel and sleep in a smaller community consisting of six or fewer. One may say that this is related to humans due to our nature of establishing close knit groups of friends and/or family we surround ourselves with on a regular basis.

Chimps are also related to us in their ability to communicate through complex systems of vocalizations, gestures, body postures and facial expressions. Grooming is an important example of their social nature. They participate in grooming for two main purposes: cleaning and establishing bonds between family and friends. It’s a critical action that helps them maintain friendships and comfort each other after a hard time or disagreement.

Mshindi hangs from a tree branch in the Kimberly-Clark Chimpanzee Forest. (Photo by Jackie Smith)

The use of tools was first observed by Goodall when she witnessed a chimp use the stem of a branch to collect termites for food. After this groundbreaking discovery, more evidence has been found all throughout Africa. Chimpanzees use rocks as hammers; anvils to open nuts; leaves as napkins or sponges; sticks to open beehives for honey and create spears to kill small mammals.

It’s a Chimp’s Life

Chimps are actually great apes and not monkeys. An easy way to distinguish between the two is to look for a tail. Monkeys have tails, while apes (gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, chimpanzees, and humans) do not.

Chimpanzees are omnivores. Their diet consists mostly of fruit and leaves. However, they also tend to eat insects, bark, eggs, nuts and even smaller monkeys or other animals for meat.

Chimps are highly intelligent when it comes to foraging for food. They are capable of remembering where food is located and when a particular fruit is ripe. They will also coordinate their efforts and share the meat amongst the group. It has also been observed that some chimpanzees may consume certain plants for medicinal purposes, like soothing an upset stomach or getting rid of intestinal parasites.

Chimps are Declining

  • Chimpanzees are among the most threatened primates in Africa for many reasons (Goodall 2001).
  • Fifty years ago, one million chimps were living in Africa. Today, it’s estimated that number has decreased to 170,000-300,000 wild chimps.
  • The Ivory Coast revealed that chimp population had decreased 90% in the last 20 years.
  • Chimpanzees are listed as “Endangered” according to the IUCN Red List.
  • 250 individuals are cared for in zoos throughout the United States.
  • Central chimps are the most abundant (80,000 found in Gabon & Congo); Eastern chimps ~ 13,000; Western chimps ~ 12,000

Habitat Destruction, hunting and disease are some of the primary threats to chimpanzees. Ultimately the major risk to chimpanzees and their habitats is human encroachment.

Thanks to Dr. Jane Goodall and her research, The Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) was established to spread the conservation message by raising public awareness, advocating and promoting healthy habitats and sustainable livelihoods. JGI works to protect chimps and other great apes against disease transmission, illegal hunting and poaching, as well as human-wildlife conflict. JGI also uses the triangle approach, which relies on the cooperation between law enforcement, environmental education programs and sanctuaries. (Educate. Protect. Rescue)

Female Ramona grooms male Mookie.

Jane Goodall Institute’s Tchimpounga sanctuary has taken in hundreds of rescued, confiscated chimps since it was founded and provides them with lifetime care. During our Swing Break event, the Dallas Zoo is partnering with The Jane Goodall Institute to raise much-needed funds to feed and care for two rescued chimps.

 How YOU can help

Choosing sustainable forest products, recycle (especially cell phones), help stop the bushmeat trade, and support local farming are all major ways you can help protect chimps and their habitat.

Educating those around you about environmental issues and promoting conservation are simple yet effective actions you can take, too. Goodall strongly believes that it is our responsibility as humans to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.

A group of Dallas Zoo interns, including myself, have organized a jammed-packed week full of fun events and conservation engagement. We hope you join us at the Dallas Zoo during SWING BREAK through March 18 to help us create a better world for animals.

We’ve set ambitious goals for chimp conservation and we need your help to reach them:

  1. $14,000 for chimpanzee conservation – food and care for two chimps rescued from the bushmeat and illegal wildlife trade
  2. 3,000 personal pledges for chimp conservation action
  3. 300 recycled mobile phones

Please support our efforts of raising funds for chimpanzees and the Jane Goodall Institute, so we can continue making a positive impact for the lives of great apes!

Categories: Africa, Chimpanzee, Conservation | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

National Zookeeper Week: Why we love our careers

_MG_0019-Mshindi on Ramona's back-CB

Lower Wilds of Africa zookeeper Cristina Powers guest-blogs on ZooHoo!

Working with animals in zoos is not nearly as glamorous as you might think. Our days are not filled with baby animals crawling all over us; instead a lot of our time is actually spent cleaning up after them, among other not-so-clean tasks.

Something visitors may not know is how zookeepers develop very special relationships with the animals we work with. Our primates have amazing and unique personalities, making every day I work here different than the one before.

Some of our chimps are very playful with us and it doesn’t involve any physical contact. As a protected contact, AZA-accredited zoo, we don’t share the same space with some of our animals, including great apes.

In the mornings, our 26-year-old male chimp, Mookie, loves to engage us in a play session. He’ll look at me, bob his head up and down while bouncing his body, and he’ll run fast through his indoor rooms. I’ll chase him from the hallway and when he gets to the end, he’ll turn around and run the opposite direction.

Chimp Mookie is known for his playful antics with keepers.

Chimp Mookie is known for his playful antics with keepers.

Mookie will do this many times, then stop, signaling play time is over. Or I’ll just get tired and can’t do it any longer!

With 7-year-old chimp Kona, it’s a little different. I’ll start running along the hallway and he might decide to join in the fun. Even little Mshindi has started to catch on.

These animals are truly special to the people who work with them day in and day out. If they get sick, we worry. If we go on vacation, we miss them. When they move to another zoo, we are sent with them for a few days to help them adjust, and minimize stress after the move.

When keepers leave the zoo, it is certainly not the end of caring and wanting to know more about our animals’ lives. We’ll email their new keepers and ask for updates and pictures. Keepers and volunteers will even arrange personal trips to go see an animal at their new home. And you can bet they’re both happy to see each other.

A lot is said about an elephant’s memory, but don’t underestimate a primate’s. They can act very excited when a retired keeper comes to see them, or even someone they haven’t seen in a while. They’ll greet their old human friends with happy vocalizations; they’ll try to reach for them and sometimes won’t leave until the person is gone.

When chimps are happy they might show it in different ways, such as opening their mouths really big, making panting vocalizations, and bobbing their heads.

Keeper Cristina Powers shares a moment with chimp Missy.

Keeper Cristina Powers shares a moment with chimp Missy.

Being a zookeeper means sometimes we spend even more time around our animals and co-workers than our own families. During ice and snow storms, when the whole city (including the Zoo!) is shut down for business, we still have to spend many hours driving so we can get here to feed and clean their living quarters. If there’s still snow on the ground the next day, we do it all over again.

Same for holidays. Even though the zoo is closed to the public on Christmas Day, our animals still need to be cared for just the same. So we make sure to have enough staff around to get the job done.

Although not a common occurrence, if severe illness strikes in our animals, or one is still recovering from anesthesia or new situations arise, you bet we will be here overnight, taking turns keeping a watchful eye over them.

Unfortunately, there comes a time when we have to say goodbye forever. The death of a beloved animal is very hard on us. If time allows, the keepers at home on their days off are called in to say their final goodbye. Tears flow freely. Calls are made and texts are sent to the ones who no longer work at the zoo.

People from other departments, volunteers, old co-workers might send cards, emails, flowers, food – they know we are grieving. We miss them, we remember them, and we bring them up in conversations often. Even new keepers get to know so much about them, because we can’t stop talking about how special they were for years and years to come.

I hope this gives a small glimpse of how special these animals are to us. This is dedicated to all zookeepers and their endless love for animals. Happy National Zookeeper Week, friends.

Categories: Africa, Chimpanzee, Gorilla, Mandrill, Zookeepers | Tags: | 3 Comments

Mourning the loss, but celebrating the life, of our oldest resident, 57-year-old chimp Bon Bon

Bon Bon Chimp 1996

Our beloved Bon Bon in 1996.

With heavy hearts, we’re deeply saddened to share news of the loss of our oldest resident, 57-year-old chimpanzee Bon Bon, who passed away this past Sunday. The matriarch of our chimp troop, she vivaciously lived to be the oldest zoo-born chimp.

In recent weeks, Bon Bon’s health had begun to decline rapidly in her advanced age. With very little eyesight and mobility, our animal care team knew it was time to say goodbye.

“She was everybody’s favorite. Since she had been here so long, staff members from all over the zoo had formed a special relationship with her,” primate supervisor Sarah Villarreal said. “People would always stop by to say hi. And she didn’t forget them. Chimps always remember.”

“Bon Bon’s quirky and charming personality will be missed by all of us. This is a huge loss to our family here,” mammal curator Keith Zdrojewski said. “As the highest-ranking female in the troop, she still had an opinion in the group, and wasn’t afraid to voice it until the end.”

The remaining eight members of the troop respectfully said goodbye to Bon Bon with hand touches and soft vocalizations.

“This allowed them to see that their matriarch isn’t there anymore. It gave them a sense of closure, and now they can determine the new hierarchy from here,” Zdrojewski explained.

After their goodbyes, the troop walked away and allowed Bon Bon’s 30-year-old daughter, Koko, to have some alone time with her mother.

“The troop let her have that time. It was very unique. Afterward, chimp Ramona embraced Koko in a hug. It was a very special moment,” Villarreal said.

Bon Bon in recent years.

Bon Bon in recent years.

Born at the Dallas Zoo in 1958, Bon Bon was one of the first chimps to open the Primate Building in 1961 and again, our state-of-the-art Kimberly-Clark Chimpanzee Forest in 1997.

Bon Bon’s obsession with fashion items on her human companions never wavered, with nail polish and new shoes two of her favorite things. Zoo staff would take off their shoes to show her their toenails, and she would be fascinated. (For her 56th birthday last year, four of our keepers brought in different colors of nail polish, sat down near Bon Bon and painted their toes as she watched with joy.)

With four babies of her own, Bon Bon was known to be very affectionate towards all youngsters in the troop. Keeper Debbie Reid, who cared for Bon Bon for nearly 20 years, says her playful nature never ended.

“You’d see her light up when she played with the youngsters. She’d laugh with them by making a panting vocalization, and she’d tickle them nonstop,” Reid said. “With much patience, she’d allow them to climb all over her.”

And within the last few weeks, she still had these spirited moments with her adult daughter Koko.

We’ll miss you, Bon Bon. Thank you for touching our lives for so many years.

Categories: Chimpanzee, Mammals, Zookeepers | 8 Comments

It takes a village to raise a 2-year-old

Mshindi celebrated his 2nd birthday Jan. 26.

Mshindi celebrated his 2nd birthday Jan. 26.

Lower Wilds of Africa assistant supervisor Tami Jochem guest blogs on ZooHoo!

Our youngest member of the Dallas Zoo chimp troop is 2! The birthday boy, Mshindi, lives with his mom, Ramona; dad and alpha male, KC; 6-year-old brother Kona; and five other members of the troop.

At 2, Mshindi is becoming increasingly independent, but will stick close to mom for several more years. All of the individuals in the troop look out for Mshindi, and he often can be seen playing with or being carried by Kona, his aunt Koko, or the largest male in the group, Mookie.

Mshindi will remain close to mom Ramona for the next few years.

Mshindi will remain close to mom Ramona for the next few years.

Mshindi’s favorite activity is to play and wrestle with the big boys. He laughs as they roll and tug him around, roughhousing like human kids do. The larger chimps are careful not to be too rough, adjusting their tremendous strength to his little body. And if anyone gets a bit too rough, one of the females will correct them – by coughing! Mshindi only needs to make one tiny noise if he feels he needs rescuing, and mom or another troop member immediately will grab him up and comfort him by holding, hugging, or patting him on the back.

Six-year-old big brother Kona loves giving Mshindi rides.

Six-year-old big brother Kona loves giving Mshindi rides.

He enjoys exploring his habitat and is learning how to climb, swing, find food, and socialize. Baby chimps are born able to cling using both hands and feet. As they get older, they switch from riding on mom’s belly to her back. All infants have a white tuft of hair on their rumps, signaling their youngster status. By age 4 or 5, this tuft disappears and they begin to learn and act like adolescents. Chimps’ social structure is quite complex, and it takes many years to learn all its intricacies.

Mshindi now gets his own pieces of fruit at the rooftop tosses, which are daily at 11:30 a.m. Come check out our whole chimp family and wish little Mshindi a “Happy Birthday!”

Categories: Chimpanzee, Mammals | 1 Comment

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