On July 14, 1960, Jane Goodall first stepped foot in Gombe Stream National Park. Over the past 58 years, Goodall has taught humans around the world to understand, care about, and help chimpanzees. For this reason, July 14th is marked as World Chimpanzee Day.
Today, our closest biological cousin is an endangered species.
Since 2015, chimpanzees have been classified as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service. Today, only 172,700 to 299,700 chimps are believed to remain; the population of western chimpanzees has decreased about 80% over the past quarter century. Human activities, including poaching, have been central to the precipitous drop in population. Not only are chimps slaughtered for bush meat, which is sold for profit in local marketplaces, but infant chimps are also kidnapped to be sold as pets. Other forms of human interaction with the environment such as logging have been detrimental to chimpanzee populations as they lead to habitat destruction.
Although human activities have been the main factor in the chimpanzee’s recent classification of an endangered species, disease has also been a large contributor. In particular, Ebola outbreaks are particularly threatening to chimps; the deadly virus has killed tens of thousands of great apes. Although recent conservation efforts have positively impacted the status of the chimpanzee, they continue to be endangered. Current trends indicate that within the next 30 to 40 years, current African ape populations will decline by an additional 80%.
Three attainable strategies to help the chimpanzee stand out. First, we must empower whistleblowers to report on individuals who would illegally kill or capture chimpanzees. Second, we must bolster law enforcement to effectively use this information by giving agencies and departments tasked with prosecuting such crimes stronger tools and better laws to work with. And third, we must fund conservation efforts to ensure that chimps have habitats allowing them to thrive safely in the wild.
Why We Should Care
Developments in chimpanzee research continue to find remarkable similarities between chimpanzees and humans. Geneticists have found that chimpanzees are our closest cousins, sharing an estimated 99 percent of DNA with humans. Our common ancestry diverged an estimated 13 million years ago.
Similar to humans, chimpanzees are exceptionally intelligent. Chimpanzees are incredibly social animals and have an extensive communication system through kissing, tickling, grooming, and laughing. When analyzing chimpanzee behavior directly after they fight, researchers from Liverpool John Moores University’s (LJMU) school of biological sciences have discovered that third-party chimps will attempt to console the victim of the fight by hugging, grooming, and kissing them. This suggests that, in ways similar to humans, chimps have the capacity to empathize with other chimps in adverse situations. Japanese researchers observed a mother chimpanzee caring for its severely disabled infant for 23 months until its death, while most animals are known to leave injured or disabled family members to fend for themselves in the wild.The capacity for chimpanzees to empathize is behavioral trait that also distinguishes them from other animals.
Perhaps one of the greatest indicators of chimpanzee intelligence is their self-awareness. Chimpanzees consistently pass the mirror test, a technique used to determine whether an animal is self-aware.
These shared similarities between chimpanzees and humans indicate why the species is so special. When investigating traits that make us unique as humans, we usually resort to higher cognitive capacity to distinguish us from other animals. While the measure of high cognition such as rational thought, ability to develop tools, and social behavior was once thought to be criteria that could distinguish humans from animals such as chimpanzees, further research shows that these measures are arbitrary and that chimpanzees can do almost everything that was once considered a distinctively human trait.
The remarkable similarities between chimpanzees and humans and the limited number of qualities that set us apart indicate why the plight of the chimpanzee is so deserving of our attention and resources. Like humans, chimps care for one another and can feel emotions from elation and sadness to affection and loss. Just as we grant other humans respect and empathy in adverse conditions because of our shared qualities, we should also empathize with our biological cousin, the chimpanzee.
Throughout her life, Jane Goodall has given us the knowledge to understand, clear reasons to care, and critical tools to help. Now we must pledge to save chimpanzees.