Monday, March 30, 2020

MBOMBELA – Today is world Chimpanzee day. This date, 14 July, has particular significance as it is the day that Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace, first began her research on the now world famous chimpanzees of Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania.


Early on in her observations, she was struck by the personalities of the chimpanzees that she was observing. When visting this iconic conservationist’s Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) close to Mbombela in South Africa, it was also one of the first impressions I had after spending some time observing them. There is a quite a distinct way they carry themselves, each with individual body language and a unique voice.

Dr. Jane Goodall at the Jane Goodall Institute (SA).

So much happy and dramatic mayhem you will seldom see anywhere else. It only quietens down minimally when the three groups of chimpanzees take to their camps after a night spent in their quarters. Just like three households within one family, the hierarchy in place and the bonds of friendship and belonging firmly in place.

The night quarters of the chimpanzees.

It seems to be that scream, hoot and charge is the order of the day while dominance and play take over. I have a hard time in recognizing individual chimpanzees because of all the movement and comings and goings in the tall grass and in the trees and shrubs.

Eventually the who’s who of the chimpanzee hierarchy is only to be found in studying photographs I have already taken, making note of the body markings and hair as well as facial expressions.

All chimpanzees really don’t look the same, especially not if you are making eye contact when they are quiet for a moment and get to know their facial expressions.

There are definitely different dispositions among the members of each group. This was formed from basic temperament I thought while watching them but has a lot to do with being rescued from several different forms of trauma. Life and humans have not been kind up to a certain point to these rescued animals.

Here in the pristine Umhloti Nature reseve in the camps at the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) the Chimp Life has taken a new turn for these three groups of chimpanzees and the individuals making up the groups.

Life could have turned out so differently for these rescued chimps. For their friends and relatives left behind in their native lands of Sudan, Angola and other African states, similar rescues may not be part of their future. The chimpanzee has been categorised as endangered under an application of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Chimpanzees in the wild may be extinct within the next 10 to 20 years. They are already extinct in Gambia, Burkina Faso, Benin and Togo.

It is when you get to know the quirks and personalities of these more than 30 chimpanzees that a feeling of deep gratitude fills you for those who rescued them as well as the care the management and staff of the JGI give to these animals to explore their newfound homes and live with their acquired families.

READ more about research done on the personalities of chimpanzees.

In the first camp Jessica very often sits atop “her” tree. Now and again she will still pluck at her hair with an intense look in her eyes. This relates to the years she was kept in a South African circus. Jessica grew too big for her cruel handlers to handle and was locked away in a small cage in a dark room for several years. She was physically abused as well during those traumatic years. Here in the loving and caring atmosphere, she recovered well and even plays surrogate mother to the infants in her group. She has become a robust female who likes to lead her group. So very far away from the frightened, very ill animal who was brought to the sanctuary.

A bit shy of the other chimpanzees and humans is Martha from Ghana. Her eyes are kept warily on visitors standing on a deck overlooking the camp. She was kept as a pet by her former owners and was given to a zoo when she was three years old. There she never became part of the group and lived an isolated life. She came to the sanctuary in 2008 to a boisterous but friendly group who taught her chimp language. She was helped along by one of the younger chimpanzees, Lily, and learned to trust the other members of the group. Today she loves fresh food and to survey the mountains and hills around her from atop one of the trees.


Mowgli comes from Sudan and has a lively demeanour while he is noisily chasing the females around the camp and having a battle of wills with the other males. His mother was shot by poachers in the Congo and he was sold to be used as bushmeat. For this purpose he was smuggled across the border into Sudan but was confiscated by officers of the Sudanese army. They took him to a safe house where he was introduced to six other infants including Tamu. They came to JGI as a group.


It is when my eyes fall on Zac that I feel a sudden sadness because he is still prone to now and again have a tantrum. An addict when he came to JGI, Zac is now “clean.” He was kept chained to a tree outside a night club in Luanda with a female chimp named Guida. They were on short chains and had no contact. Visitors gave the two of them drugs and alcohol. They were in a bad way when they came to the sanctuary. The love and care and freedom helped Zac to grow to a strong male. He became the alpha male in the group for a while after Joao allowed him to takeover.


Joao is still the peacemaker however, a job that is very much in demand after the charging displays and all the running about. Joao was given to the Mozambique zoo with a female when he was young but his companion died and he lived in isolation in the zoo for 45 years. He arrived at the sanctuary in 2006 and is the one in his group who teaches the others all about discipline. Chimps have an average lifespan of 30 to 40 years.

Watching these happy and gregarious animals within their new families being boisterous and with the freedom to live out their personalities despite their traumatic past, reminds me of Jane Goodall’s famous quote: “It is these undeniable qualities of human love and compassion and self-sacrifice that give me hope for the future. We are, indeed, often cruel and evil. Nobody can deny this. We gang up on each one another, we torture each other, with words as well as deeds, we fight, we kill. But we are also capable of the most noble, generous, and heroic behavior.”

This is what you experience at the JGI. The goodness and kindness of one family looking after another as well as each other.

Quote from Jane Goodall, Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey

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Elize Parker
Environmental Journalist


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