World Chimpanzee Day: Our closest relatives have the compassion to adopt orphans, but do we have it in us to save them?

13 July 2018

Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives, yet while they care for the defenceless, human activities are pushing them to extinction.

Modern humans share more than 98% of their genome with chimpanzees, but our similarities go much further than genetics.

Just like us, chimps live in complex societies and observational studies have shown that individuals need to learn cultural social skills in order to fit in to the collective.

This cultural and social learning comes mostly from their mother. Infants and juveniles benefit from the close relationship with their mother in terms of food, warmth, protection, and the opportunity to learn skills. They are in constant contact for the first 30 days of life, with newborns helpless to survive without maternal support.

At around two years-old they will venture a small distance from their mothers and are weaned between the ages of four and six, before finally becoming  independent between six and nine. But despite this independence, a chimpanzee’s lifelong bond with their mother will continue their entire life.

But such reliance means those who becomes orphans have slim hopes of survival.

Amazingly, in these hardest of times, chimp communities come to the rescue with adoption of infants being seen in chimpanzee populations in zoos.

In a recent example, a baby named Boon was adopted by a female named Zombi in 2015 at the Monarto Zoo in Australia, following the death of his mother Soona.

After Boon’s birth, a male was reported to have picked up Boon and cared for him while his sick mother Soona sat with Zombi until she passed away. Zombi then collected Boon from the male and subsequently provided the infant with the care he would have received from his mother.

It is believed that adoptions by closely related females are also likely to happen in wild populations.

This situation works well for infants, but chimps orphaned when they are old enough to survive alone are immediately put at a different disadvantage.

These orphans miss their most important caretaker during a sensitive socialisation period, and lack the safe and facilitating social environment provided by their mothers. As a result, orphaned chimpanzees are known to be less socially competent than chimpanzees who were reared by their mothers.

Orphaned chimpanzees engaging in social play, are known to have shorter play bouts which result in aggression more often than in chimpanzees which have been raised within social groups. Since social play comprises a complex context in which signals about intentions need to be communicated, it seems that orphaned chimpanzees have missed out on valuable lessons.

While humans now know from research that chimpanzees are wide-ranging, social animals with diverse physical, social, behavioural and psychological needs, the tragedy is we continue to be the greatest danger to their survival.

Throughout the world, chimpanzees endure poor living conditions in captivity. They are often socially isolated in substandard zoos and private collections while many hundreds are exploited in circuses and the tourism industry. These unfortunate individuals find themselves forced through fear and punishment to perform meaningless tricks or have their photograph taken with tourists.

In the wild, the situation is little better. Chimpanzees are listed as “endangered” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List with habitat loss and hunting the primary drivers of high mortality. Live infants are also prized for the pet and entertainment industries.

With chimpanzees having proven their capacity for compassion towards those in need, perhaps it is time for us humans to do likewise. Rejecting all entertainment such as circuses and movies where chimps or other primates are exploited would be a good start.

If you haven’t already, you can help make their voices heard by signing our “No Voice, No Choice” petition. Together we can let film directors, zoo managers and circus owners know animal performance cruelty is never acceptable.