Gayathri Vaidyanathan

Environment/science reporter

Apes in Africa: The cultured chimpanzees


Nature; Aug. 17, 2011

Do chimpanzees have traditions? As wild populations dwindle, researchers are racing to find out.

Thump! Thump! Thump! As the hollow sound echoes through the Liberian rainforest, Vera Leinert and her fellow researchers freeze. Silently, Leinert directs the guide to investigate. Jefferson ‘Bola’ Skinnah, a ranger with the Liberian Forestry Development Authority, stalks ahead, using the thumping to mask the sound of his movement.

In a sunlit opening in the forest, Skinnah spots a large adult chimpanzee hammering something with a big stone. The chimpanzee puts a broken nut into its mouth then continues pounding. When Skinnah tries to move closer, the chimp disappears into the trees. By the time Leinert and her crew get to the clearing, the animal is long gone.

For the past year, Leinert has been trekking through Sapo National Park, Liberia’s first and only protected reserve, to study its chimpanzee population. A student volunteer at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (EVA) in Leipzig, Germany, Leinert has never seen her elusive subjects in the flesh but she knows some of them well. There’s an energetic young male with a big belly who hammers nuts so vigorously he has to grab a sapling for support. There are the stronger adults who can split a nut with three blows. And there are the mothers who parade through the site with their babies. They’ve all been caught by video cameras placed strategically throughout Sapo.

Chimpanzees in the wild are notoriously difficult to study because they flee from humans — with good reason. Bushmeat hunting and human respiratory diseases have decimated chimpanzee populations1, while logging and mining have wiped out their habitat. Population numbers have plunged — although no one knows by exactly how much because in most countries with great apes, the animals have never been properly surveyed.