Chimpanzees are our closest relatives. That doesn’t mean we’ve made their lives are easy. Far from it.
According to our friends who monitor the species as part of the IUCN Red List, the Chimpanzee (or “pan troglodytes”) is an endangered species.
While the global human population is now 7.6 billion, the global chimpanzee population is less than a million.
What you might also not know is that there are actually many subspecies of the chimpanzee… and some of those sub-species are down to their last few hundred individuals.
Now, in this episode, we’re not going to talk much about the details of chimpanzee numbers in the wild. But it’s important to know that even though there are many, many efforts to counter the loss, it looks like their population is still declining. Unsurprisingly, that decline is because of human activity: poaching, loss of habitat as jungles get turned into agricultural land and infectious diseases (like the virus ebola which chimpanzees do get, just like humans). It’s actually thought that ebola alone has wiped out about a third of the chimpanzees population since the 1990s.
That backdrop means this episode coming up makes for some uncomfortable, but really important listening. For me, what I feel now that I’ve gotten to know more about chimpanzees in today’s world, is just how unfortunate they are to be so much like us. It’s our fascination and our exploitation of their likeness to us that has landed chimpanzees in some, frankly, bizarre situations. Some of which verge on science fiction.
Now, even ancient tribes used to take chimpanzees from the wild and keep them. But in the 20th century the trade in these animals has been on another scale. Many have been captured and trafficked out of Africa and ended up as circus entertainers and pets. Some (thousands of them, in fact) became laboratory animals who were infected with things like HIV, just as an example, for research purposes.
Thankfully, for some of these chimpanzees, there were happier times after they were rescued.
Here we see David van Gennep reaching out to a chimpanzee called Linda. Until then she had spent 30 years alone in a barred shed. This outreached hand rom David might have been one of the first acts of kindness that Linda had ever witnessed.
David van Gennep kitted out in his AAP gear.
AAP is a rescue and rehabilitation organisation which has two centres: one in the Netherlands and another in Spain. Aside from working directly with chimpanzees and other “exotic” animals, the team at AAP also gets involved in influencing changes in public policy. They’ve been instrumental in getting a ban on the “use” of chimpanzees in laboratories in the Netherland (this ban has since been adopted by some other countries). And, right now, they’re campaigning to get the EU to implement a European ban on wild animal in circuses.
If you live in the European Union, please do consider reading and signing the petition that would go some way in proving that public opinion is against the use of wild animals in zoos:
Now, back to the interview. It’s fair to say that David is quite exceptional. He’s one of the most positive and, let’s say, entrepreneurial people I’ve met in the field of animal welfare and conservation. Imagine staying an optimist when you have spent your career seeing things like:
To paint a picture about the kind of things that David has seen, the AAP communications team helped me with some photos and background stories.
Macario spent his days alone in a filthy care on the Canary Islands for 22 years.
David and the AAP team finally arrived to take him to a better life. Thankfully, Macario's human owner admitted that Macario was not happy... and he realised that his purchase of him was wrong. He wished Macario a happier life at AAP and felt genuine remorse for keeping him like this for so long.
Macario these days, living in his new home at AAP. The difference in his eyes compared to the first picture brings a tear of happiness to my own, I must admit.
Linda was a photo model who used to be dressed up in tiny clothes as a youngster. But then she grew up... and became stronger... she was locked up in this little cage. There, she spent the next 30 years.
This is Linda's first time going outside. It was lucky she ended up in AAP. Her Spanish owners first contacted another rescue centre, but they could not take her because Linda has hepatitis B. AAP is one of the only centres that takes infected animals and the team was able to bring her for a well deserved retirement.
This is Linda together with her social group who she lives with at AAP.
Marria was something like a "living doll" for the family that she lived with in Lisbon, Portugal. While she was a youngster she lived just like a human, but of course then she grew up... and she was locked in the garage when the owners started to see that she became stronger and more unpredictable.
Now, of course, things are much nicer. She's able to enjoy time outside and with her fellow species.
The bizarre thing I found about Marria's case is that she came to AAP in 2017. I really had no idea that people still thought it was a good idea to keep a chimpanzee in their apartment in this day and age.
How wonderful it is to be with your friends :)