The Unexpected Adaptability of Chimps to the Human World

Douglas Foster in The Atlantic:

Lead_960Gatherings of great-ape specialists border on the funereal. Four of six great-ape species (including both species of orangutans in Indonesia) are critically endangered, just one step away from extinction. The non-captive cousins of the two great-ape species in the center, Western Lowland gorillas and chimpanzees, are endangered, two steps from extinction. In recent decades, chimpanzee populations in Africa, estimated at 150,000 to 200,000, have been decimated because of expansion of palm-oil plantations (an industrialized form of agriculture), logging, hunting, climate change, and disease. “We’re surrounded by doom and gloom,” Goodall said. But alongside these dominant trends were strands of a more hopeful counter-narrative, which she was eager to highlight.

…This progress was due, in part, to a program that placed Android mobile phones and Tablets in the hands of rangers and local residents. Now, they could capture evidence of incursions, snares, and illegal logging, upload it quickly, and allow local authorities to respond swiftly enough to make a difference. “Look at what happens when we work with people,” Goodall said. It wasn’t only fresh evidence of success in getting humans to respond more effectively to threats to the existence of chimpanzees that excited her. There were also accumulating reports at the conference about the adaptive social intelligence of chimpanzees.

In a meeting hall near the ape house, a young Japanese researcher named Shinya Yamamoto rolled a bit of video from an ongoing study. Like Matsuzawa, Yamamoto had worked with captive chimps in Japan, and also observed both bonobos and chimpanzees in Africa. The clip showed a pair of dominant males cross a narrow dirt road, scanning it in both directions. They station themselves on the opposite side of the road and stand guard as a mother with an infant on her back, and seven other members of their community, scoot by. In similar footage, available from an earlier study, adult chimpanzees behave much like school crossing guards. This is an example of group coordination, vigilance, waiting and escorting, Yamamoto explained. Since bonobos haven’t been observed escorting and guarding in this way, it could be distinctly chimpanzee behavior. Chimps are hunters and meat eaters, unlike other great apes and more like humans, so perhaps the quality of coordination needed in organizing a hunt prepares chimpanzees for escorting others in this way to avoid danger on the road.

More here.