Bushmeat orphans from a unique chimpanzee culture

20 January 2011

In a five year research project in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dr. Cleve Hicks studied a population of one of the most fascinating creatures on Earth: our close relative the chimpanzee. Hicks’s story is bittersweet and recounts the amazing discovery of one of the largest chimpanzee populations in Africa, with its own unique and surprisingly widespread culture. Tragically, though, this culture is under siege from a spreading wave of illegal bushmeat hunting, which is leaving a growing number of bushmeat orphans in its wake.

In a five year research project in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dr. Cleve Hicks studied a population of one of the most fascinating creatures on Earth: our close relative the chimpanzee. Hicks’s story is bittersweet and recounts the amazing discovery of one of the largest chimpanzee populations in Africa, with its own unique and surprisingly widespread culture. Tragically, though, this culture is under siege from a spreading wave of illegal bushmeat hunting, which is leaving a growing number of bushmeat orphans in its wake.

Between 2004 and 2009, Cleve Hicks carried out his research on chimpanzees in the protected nature reserve of Bili-Uéré in northern of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in close cooperation with the Wasmoeth Wildlife Foundation and, initially, conservationist Karl Ammann. The research was a part of Hicks’ PhD studies at the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics (IBED) of the University of Amsterdam (UvA), and he was assisted by Dutch researcher Jeroen Swinkels and American student Laura Darby.

Chimpanzees with a unique culture

The study was initiated following rumours of the existence of a giant ape that supposedly lived in the northern DRC in the forests near the town of Bili. This so-called ‘Bili ape’ was proposed by some to be a lost species of gorilla, a gorilla-chimpanzee hybrid, or a new species of ape. According to local legends this creature was able to kill a lion with its bare hands. A large crested skull found in the area by Karl Ammnann together with abundant ground nests at first pointed in the direction of them being gorillas . However, analysis of the mitochondrial DNA from faecal samples and hairs collected in the area revealed the Bili ape to be the Eastern chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii (although it may possibly represent a new subspecies).

While not the legendary gorilla-chimpanzee hybrid that Hicks perhaps had hoped to find, the chimpanzees he studied turned out to have a unique culture, which appears to be spread over tens of thousands of square kilometers of forests and savannas: a ‘Mega-Culture’. In addition to their habit of sleeping on the ground (unusual for chimpanzees, who normally sleep in trees to avoid predators), he discovered that the apes use 2.5-m long tools for collecting ants, and they pound open number of objects such as snails and termite mounds.. The ground nesting-behavior is a particular puzzle, as large predators such as lions, hyenas, and leopards are abundant in the Bili area. Apparently, the Bili chimpanzees are not so scared of predators. On the contrary, an observation made by one of Hicks’ team members suggest that the Bili apes may actually have reversed the roles of predator and prey and kill leopards themselves. This might also explain the origin of the ‘lion-killing’ abilities that are part of the Bili-ape legend.

With an estimated 35,000 - 65,000 individuals in the are in which Hicks surveyed, the Bili apes form one of the largest remaining populations of chimpanzees in the world.

Bushmeat orphans

Unfortunately, the story of Cleve Hicks’ research project has taken a tragic turn. The Bili-Uéré Hunting Reserve was overrun by illegal gold miners in 2007, and when Hicks embarked on a wildlife survey 100 km to the south of Bili, he found that, while still numerous in the area, the chimpanzees are increasingly threatened by hunters. Locals told Hicks that this is the result of the recent influx of a large number of gold and diamond miners. The increased demand for food to fill the miners’ stomachs has led to a thriving and rapidly-expanding bushmeat trade. With the concurrent disappearance of ancient local customs and taboos that discouraged the hunting of chimpanzees, the apes are now increasingly slaughtered to be sold as soup meat.

While the killing of chimpanzees for their meat is appalling in its own right, the hunting of apes has a very sad side effect: the bushmeat orphan. When a chimpanzee mother is shot, her infant (if it survives shrapnel and the fall from the treetops) is taken captive back to the village. Too small to catch a good prize on the meat market, the bewildered infants are often sold alive as pets, and are doomed to live horrible lives in captivity. More often than not they will end up in a pot of soup as well. Moved by the plight of the bushmeat orphans, Hicks, a strict vegan himself, saved several of them during his stay in the DRC and set up a temporary chimpanzee orphan sanctuary (no money was paid for any of these orphans, as that would just drive the terrible trade).

Media attention and a call for help

A strong drive to help the Bili apes has led Hicks to expose their slaughter and to campaign for improved protection of their habitat. Together with his colleagues he published an article about the bushmeat crisis in the scholarly journal African Primates, available via the link below

Together with his enthusiasm for his scientific discoveries, this concern for the future of the Bili apes prompted him to seek media attention in order to highlight the unique culture of these chimpanzees as well as the threats they face from humans. As a result, Hicks has made numerous appearances in the media, including two extensive articles in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad in 2007 and 2010 that are reproduced here with their permission.

Other media appearances ranged from Dutch national television and front page coverage in UvA magazine Folia, an article in the UK journal The Guardian, and an article in a Chinese news magazine.

For a very personal account of Hicks’ discoveries, and his rescue of ‘The Aketi 5’ chimpanzees, see the following e-books:

Cleve Hicks

Thurston Cleveland Hicks was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA on the 21 February 1972.

On 11 November 2010 he received his PhD from the University of Amsterdam for his ‘A Chimpanzee Mega-Culture? Exploring behavioral continuity in Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii across northern DR Congo’. Hicks is grateful to Wasmoeth Wildlife Foundation, IBED, the Lucie Burgers Foundation, the International Primate Protection League, the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature, Karl Ammann, the government of the DR Congo, and the Centre de Rehabilitation des Primates de Lwiro for supporting his work with the Bili apes.

He is currently a guest researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany (who also supported his research) and hopes to return to Bili soon.

Published by  IBED