The 2nd World Chimpanzee Day falls on 14th July. As it is also the 60th anniversary of Gombe Stream National Park, it is befitting that we mark the occasion by revisiting Gombe and the role it played in Jane Goodall’s ground-breaking chimpanzee research.
Gombe Stream National Park lies along the eastern coast of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. Established in 1968, it protects a great variety of habitats, ranging from rainforest to grasslands which are situated among a backdrop of steep valleys. Gombe has a rich biodiversity of animals, ranging from snakes to primates. However, the Kasekela eastern chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) community must certainly rank as the park’s most well-known inhabitants as they have been the subjects of various documentaries and research. It is not an exaggeration to say that much of what we known about chimpanzee biology comes from our observations of this population.
Gombe was the site that Jane Goodall carried out her pioneering research on chimpanzees. She started a long-term field study which continues till today. Her study of chimpanzees has established the methodology that most primate studies followed till today.
As an example, most primatologists (like us) give names to individual primates they study. While it may sound intuitive today, in the early 20th century, this methodology was considered anathema as it was perceived as anthropomorphism. Regardless, Jane Goodall gave names to the chimps that she observed. By doing so, she reminded herself that individual chimps have unique personalities – a view which is now standard for primate workers.
Jane’s findings have transformed what we know about our most closely related genetic cousins. Before Jane, use of tools was thought to be the defining character of what is human – “Man the toolmaker” was the prevailing tagline. However, such a belief was challenged when Jane observed the chimps “fishing” for termites from the nests, and using stalks of grass as “fishing rods”. Such findings were revolutionary for that time, but more discoveries ensued. Over the course of her fifteen year stay in Gombe, Jane gathered evidence of other capabilities in chimpanzees such as reasoning, symbolic representation and self-awareness that was once thought to be the monopoly of humans.
Chimpanzees were thought to be merely peaceful vegetarians. However, Jane saw a dark side to their behaviour at Gombe. She observed chimps hunting and consuming other smaller primates like red colobus monkeys (Piliocolobus sp.) and using a strategy to achieve this! The hunting of such monkeys must be an important part of the chimp’s diet – for it has been estimated that they remove a third of the Gombe red colobus population each year through their foraging efforts.
Regarding this darker side of chimpanzee behaviour, Jane observed in them a host of intertroop violence and aggression. For example, Jane observed that dominant female chimps kill infants of other female chimpanzees, and sometimes even eating them, to maintain their dominance. Peaceful creatures? Not quite!
While such a discovery was shocking at that time, it showed how similar chimps and humans are in terms of their behaviour. As any student of history and current affairs knows, humans are also capable of inflicting cruel acts upon their own kind. It is just that our methods are much more sophisticated than what chimps can muster. It can be argued that, by studying the aggressive side of chimps, we can gain an insight about the origins of our violent impulses. Hopefully, this discovery will enable us to overcome such impulse and build a more peaceful world which is what Jane stands for.
Jane’s data accumulated over her fifteen years of full-time work in Gombe. It still remains relevant for a younger generation of chimpanzee researchers. While Jane has long retired from active research, the Gombe Stream Research Centre bears her legacy and continues the work of her landmark discovery. Currently, run by locals, the chimpanzee research project remains the longest running field study of any animal in an undisturbed environment. The forty years of data collected has provided the next generation of researchers with comprehensive and valuable data on various aspects of chimpanzee ethology and society which amounts to over 35 doctorate theses, 400 papers and 30 books. Apart from the empirical research, the conservation work carried out has shed light on potential threats to the chimpanzees at Gombe – and by extension, the biodiversity of Gombe. The biological data on the Gombe chimps has allowed for better design of protected areas for chimps and set the basis for further work on other chimpanzee population elsewhere in East and West Africa.
Closer to home, Jane Goodall and her work at Gombe has become a role model for many would-be female primate researchers in both the local and international scene. It has been said that women now dominate long-term primate behavioural research worldwide – an outlier when compared to other fields of zoology.
However, the future of Gombe faces threats due to continued human encroachment on the reserve and its effects: disease risk, habitat loss and the illegal wildlife trade. In the longer term, the impact of future climate change on the Gombe ecosystem remains uncertain. Much more work needs to be done with various stakeholders if chimpanzees of Gombe and elsewhere were to survive for our future generations to appreciate as living organisms instead as just illustrations in textbooks.