Species / Close Relatives: About Humans and Great Apes

Share this article

SOURCE: Deutschlandfunk

In chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla, orangutan we recognize ourselves like no other: they are our closest relatives. But kinship is no guarantee for affection, rather for conflict-ridden relationships. Can we still succeed in protecting the great apes from ourselves?

By Anneke Meyer 12/31/2021

"I look into a face with two eyes that look at me just like me." (imago images/imagebroker/R. Wittek)

On New Year’s Eve 2020, five large sky lanterns float through the air between fireworks and rockets. They are supposed to bring good luck. One of the lanterns lands on the roof of the monkey house at the nearby zoo.

Media around the world are reporting on the fire. More than 50 animals die in the flames. Among them are representatives of highly endangered great ape species: orangutans from Borneo, lowland gorillas from Central Africa and chimpanzees from West Africa.

Flowers, photos, a sea of ​​candles. Within hours, a thousand people gather in front of the zoo. Zoo director Wolfgang Dreßen later speaks at the funeral service.

“In a horrible way, living beings who belong to us and to this city like members of a family died. They were strong animal personalities that we lost forever.”

It's as if people had died – candles, flowers and monkey figures after the fire in the Krefeld Zoo's tropical house (imago images/Martin Wagner)

Strong personalities

“So this is where the tropical house was.”

Barrier tapes flutter in front of a large meadow. The fire ruins were demolished a long time ago. The construction of a new tropical house is to begin soon.

“I always like to talk about animal personalities that we lost here on the night of the fire. For all Krefeld citizens and the whole area around Krefeld, they were strong personalities that every child knew.”

Lea, the orangutan mom, the honorably graying gorilla Massa. Or Charlie. For years the undisputed boss of the chimpanzee group and for a long time not exactly the biggest fan of zoo director Wolfgang Dreßen.

“I was persona non grata, so to speak. As soon as I showed up there, in the tropical house, he started a program. It started with the pant-hoots, those famous sounds that chimpanzees make men. It continued with very loud banging, jumping against the pane where I was standing behind. Or when I was standing behind a dry ditch throwing feces. It was the greatest weapon he could wield. That also had the greatest impact.

And that behavior has been 20 years and non-stop, although we never did anything… there wasn’t any direct interaction with him where I had done anything negative to him.”

Wolfgang Dreßen carries a lasting memory on his hand. Charlie bit off the tip of one of his thumbs.

“And this behavior changed abruptly from one day to the next. It’s something very, very special for me when suddenly one morning he greeted me in a friendly manner and asked me to cheat on him.”

A friendship offer. But with calculation.

“If you observe chimpanzees in zoos in the wild, you realize: there are coalitions of men, there are alliances of men. […] And with him it was just the case that he tried to achieve my friendship because he had dropped in rank.”

After long trials, the younger male Limbo prevailed and took over the alpha position.

“And all of a sudden, and from then until the end of his life, I was his best friend.”

Affenmann Charly was the undisputed boss of the Krefeld chimpanzees (Zoo Krefeld) for years


Only Limbo and his chimpanzee friend Bally survived the fire. On the night of the fire, it didn’t look like it.

“We couldn’t find anything in the dark of the night. It was only in the morning during the last extinguishing work that the firefighters heard noises from the still smoking and very high temperature house and then called all the emergency services again. Us too, of course.”

The situation is delicate and the ruins are in danger of collapsing. The nurses call. And indeed, the animals dare to come out of their hiding places.

“They sat exactly where they got their tea every morning. […] This morning, after that terrible night. And then accordingly we were able to secure the facility to capture the animals because they could have escaped. All panes were cracked. The climbing trees were partially burned, tipped over and whatever. They could have escaped from the house, but they didn’t, they stayed there.”

Since the fire, Limbo and Bally have been living in a side enclosure belonging to the gorilla breeding group, which is part of the International Conservation Breeding Program for endangered species, in which the Krefeld Zoo participates. The young gorilla family survived the fire safely in their own building.


In the living room of the gorillas

Wolfgang Dreßen walks the few meters from where the entrance to the tropical house used to be to the large window front through which one can see the inner enclosure.

This is the view of the gorillas’ living room or bedroom as well as…

The largest of the gorillas approaches with leisurely steps until he is very close to the glass pane.

“Here comes the silverback, the kidogo, and look at who is standing in front of this pane of glass.”

He seems to recognize his zoo director, but there’s something else in his eyes. Barely an arm’s length away, you can literally feel the skepticism of the giant great ape.

“He’s looking at the microphone, it’s a bit unusual…”

We walk a little further along the enclosure. Kidogo follows slowly, a few steps behind. Until Wolfgang Dreßen stops. The zoo director points to a female gorilla that has made herself comfortable in a poorly visible corner. In her arms a tiny baby.

When bending down to see the baby better, the microphone touches the pane. Suddenly a bang. Kidogo threw himself against the window glass. Another menacing look in the direction of the microphone, then he leaves, his little family in tow.

The message is clear.

Kidogo, the silverback of Krefeld Zoo, doesn't like microphones (Krefeld Zoo / Vera Gorissen)

people – monkeys

“Every visitor, every person intuitively has a certain feeling when observing great apes.”

In no other animal do we recognize ourselves so well.

Wolfgang Dreßen: “I look into a face with two eyes that look at me just like me. The nose is similar, the mouth is very similar, the ears are in the same place, the proportions of the entire face are very similar. In this respect, what becomes of this face towards me, I can interpret it immediately, […] I think this immediately creates a closer relationship with apes and especially the great apes.”

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “When I first saw a mountain gorilla in the wild and looked into its eyes, I felt a real connection. ..There is such a deep understanding. Maybe that’s something from way back in the day. I’ve seen people cry when they meet a gorilla. It is a very emotional experience!”

Inza Koné: “We know that all human behavior has its roots in the animal world. Anyone who regularly observes monkeys realizes that everything they do is exactly what we can also observe in ourselves.”

Christophe Boesch: “As a human being, one always asks oneself: What is a human being? why are we here Are we different from other animal species? And if we are different, what makes us different?”


Think like in chimpanzee

Christophe Boesch is Director Emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. He has been researching the behavior of chimpanzees in the wild for over 40 years. He conducted most of his studies in the Taї National Park on the Ivory Coast.

“The chimpanzees in the national park hunt little monkeys. Because they like to eat meat and these little monkeys only live high in the trees and in the forest the trees are 50 meters high, 40 meters high and they are very difficult for chimpanzees to catch. And at the beginning, when I followed a hunt, I didn’t understand anything that was going on. There are chimpanzees behind, in front of me, left, right. They’re all moving up there in the trees, the little monkeys are running away and it all looks very chaotic.

And then you focus on a hunter. […] And then there was a male – I called him Falstaff because he had a white beard – and I noticed that this Falstaff was thinking about where he had to go. Then I thought I had to follow him. Maybe I understand what he’s doing. And then he just ran away from the hunt. And that totally confused me: Why is he running away now? I followed him and noticed that he plans ahead. The little monkeys will climb high in the trees, run away, in the direction where Falstaff ran. He thought ahead: […] where will they run to? I have to be up there before the monkeys come, and for that I have to have enough time to climb up the trees without those branches moving, because when they do, move, the little monkeys understand that there someone is. And so the Falstaff actually planned in advance how this hunt would develop and anticipated: I have to be there to catch one of those little monkeys.

And there, yes… there I think, I think like a chimpanzee or the chimpanzee thinks like me. Because otherwise I wouldn’t have understood what was happening either.”

Not only humans use tools: This chimpanzee cracks nuts with a stone. (Tobias Deschner/Taï Chimpanzee Project)

What is the difference between humans and monkeys?

Acting with foresight, making plans for the future. This is something that was long thought only humans could do. In search of what makes us human and what makes apes apes, scientists over the centuries have defined many abilities as purely human.

The research results of the last decades have disproved each of these theses: Humans are not unique because they walk upright, they are not the only ones who invented tools and they are not the only animals that can act altruistically.

“Brutus was the senior male in our chimpanzee group when we started. He remained the highest ranking male for ten years and he was so successful because he just had a circle of girlfriends.

That is, chimpanzee females, which he always preferred when he had meat, for example, and also preferred him because he was such a confidential partner.

And one day one of those females died and she had a four and a half year old son who was then an orphan. And we knew from past experience that if a child dies before the age of five, a child doesn’t actually survive.

And to our total surprise, the Brutus adopted this child […] and every night he shared the nest with his adopted child. And when he cracked nuts, he split nuts like a female – which never happens with an adult male! And if he had meat, he gave access to that meat to his adopted child, which he would never have done for anyone. He really totally changed his whole behavior towards this little orphan, always made sure that the child follows him and if the child had a problem with other children or with adults, he always came to support.

And that was the first time ever that we have seen a young child being adopted by an adult male.”


Close relatives, no friends

Great apes recognize themselves in the mirror. Chimpanzees don’t just use tools, they make them and save the very tools that work best. Their communication has characteristics of language. They show feelings, deceive, mourn. Great apes and humans have more in common than separates them. We share up to 99 percent of DNA. They are our closest living relatives.

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “When you live next door to monkeys who eat your bananas, you see it very differently.”

Kinship is no guarantee of affection. Kinship is a guarantee for misunderstandings and conflict-ridden relationships.

Christophe Boesch: “I think there is no relationship. Humans in general – maybe not in our world, but where the majority of humans exist – eat the animals that exist around their territory. And so the relationship is: hunter-prey. And that’s actually the relationship.”

Inza Koné: “It’s a cultural question, in West Africa for example, when we talk to people in the countryside about the animals in the area, they don’t differentiate between species, but meat. They say we have antelope meat, we have monkeys…”


Misunderstood closeness

Inza Koné is Director at the Swiss Center for Scientific Research in Ivory Coast. He was also born on the Ivory Coast. He has known the coexistence of apes and humans since he was a child.

“When I was a kid, I would take my family to the country for vacations. In the small village there were two baby baboons that were kept as pets. These two little monkeys became my best friends in the village. We were inseparable, I played with them all the time. Then, when the holidays came to an end, I was so sad to leave that my father gave me the male baby baboon as a present.

I was so happy! And yes, the little monkey became my best friend in town. But then, as the monkey got bigger, it started to get aggressive. He attacked everyone, including me. It was a very small town that we lived in. There was no zoo or anything like that. The only solution people could think of was to kill the baboon. I was so sad I couldn’t eat for three days.”

Years later, while studying biology, he attends a lecture by a well-known monkey researcher.

“And when I saw monkeys in the wild in the lecture… I was filled with emotions. We didn’t understand what a monkey needs that is good for a non-human primate. I felt guilty for calling a monkey my best friend. In the city, in my home. He just didn’t belong there. And that’s when I decided to do something to protect the monkeys.”

Today, Inza Koné is one of Africa’s leading primatologists. In his research, he deals with smaller species of monkeys that only occur on the Ivory Coast – and with the behavior of the only great ape that is not threatened with extinction: Homo sapiens.


legends and traditions

“I’m trying to understand how a village community perceives its environment, especially monkeys and apes.”

Our closest relatives in the Ivory Coast, as in many other countries in West Africa, South America and Asia, are meat. But there are also numerous local legends and traditions that give special importance to individual species of monkeys.

“This applies, for example, to the Geoffroy’s colobus monkey. A woman’s tenth child is considered cursed in a region in the far east of Ivory Coast. This means it will never be able to assume an important function in the village. At meetings and votes, his opinion does not count. The curse can only be lifted by a ceremony involving the droppings of this particular endangered monkey.”

In many villages there are stories of chimpanzees helping a woman give birth; protected a wounded man or saved the whole village from an attack. Chimpanzees are often accorded sacred animal status for their service.

“And then there are people who believe that apes are the ancestors of man who were one day transformed by a magician. And killed the sorcerer before he could transform the ancestors back.”

Inza Koné tries to use the knowledge of local traditions to persuade the population to protect endangered species. Sometimes that works. However, the cultural connections to our closest relatives are not a panacea for the protection of species.

“It is quite possible for a tribe to see Campbell’s monkeys as emissaries from the ancestors. They are not allowed to hunt the sacred monkeys, but they are allowed to hunt chimpanzees. With another tribe it can be exactly the opposite. If you want to use cultural references for species protection, you have to understand that. If one wants to protect all primates as “our closest relatives”, one must not forget the centuries-old culture. That makes it very difficult.”



Hunters are highly respected in many villages and cultures. They represent a tradition that has ensured its survival for generations. And they make money from it.

“Bushmeat is the most important source of protein in rural West Africa. And when you calculate models based on current levels of hunted animals, you immediately see that if nothing is done to reduce hunting pressure, some species, including great apes, will be extinct in less than 10 years. And that is a fact.”

According to the World Conservation Union (IUCN), there are 518 primate species. Almost half are threatened with extinction. Chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans are at the top of the list.

The population has skyrocketed in many developing countries. The habitat of the animals is getting smaller and smaller. The number of buyers for bushmeat is increasing. Increasing deforestation allows hunters to penetrate areas that were previously inaccessible.

“Of course people know that hunting changes their whole environment. Of course you will notice that some animals were easy to find 10 years ago, but now you hardly see them anymore. Compared to before, hunting has become much more difficult. But yes, they see no alternative. Continuing seems the best option to them.”


Human and Species Conservation

In the Ivory Coast alone, almost 70 percent of the forest area has been cut down since the 1960s. The chimpanzee population has declined by 90 percent compared to 1970. Things are no better in other countries.

Christophe Boesch: “Unfortunately, the syndrome of empty forests in Africa is well known. There are many areas that are protected and the trees are there, but the animals are all gone, have all been chased out. Poaching like this is a problem for nature conservation and I mean, now I would actually say directly: also for the people.”

Wolfgang Dreßen: “It’s not just about saying that I’m putting a certain area under protection and that’s where it has to work. The people who live there have to adapt somehow. It is crucial to involve the local people, the local population.”

Inza Koné: “They want to be involved. They want to play an important role in preserving their environment. But they also know that they need help to do this. I think the key is empowering local communities.”

Does it work together? (dpa / picture alliance / MCT_/Landov / Tom Knudson)


“If that doesn’t happen, if local people aren’t considered, then there will always be conflicts between humans and animals, and that won’t help the great apes survive.”

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is the founder of the non-governmental organization Conservation Through Public Health, which works to protect mountain gorillas.

“It all started when I became the first field veterinarian for the Uganda Conservation Agency…”

Two years earlier, in 1992, first attempts to make money through eco-tourism started. The gorillas are the magnets for the public.

“The idea of ​​hiring a vet came out of concern that the gorillas could catch diseases from tourists. And then animals actually got sick.”

The genetic relationship also means that humans and great apes are susceptible to the same diseases. However, some of these are merely unpleasant for one species and deadly for the other. For example scabies, a parasite that burrows into the horny layer of the skin

“A baby gorilla died. The others only recovered after we treated them with ivermectin.”

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka had only just taken office at the time. It’s 1994 and there are around 600 mountain gorillas left. Half of them live in the area for which they are responsible. The survival of each individual animal counts. dr Gladys and her helpers go in search of the cause of the disease and find it: a scarecrow made out of village children’s clothes. The gorillas had stolen fruit from the field.

“And that’s when I realized that we couldn’t protect the gorillas without taking care of the health of the people the gorillas share a habitat with.”

Gorilla tourism creates income streams for many of the rural residents around the sanctuary. Health care helps ensure that those who don’t work in tourism can also benefit from the gorillas.

“In the beginning, people thought gorillas were dangerous beasts because if you meet a gorilla that isn’t used to humans, it will attack. But then they realized that gorillas are actually very gentle giants. People have started to tolerate animals. And once they found that gorilla tourism improved their lives, they stopped being upset that they were no longer allowed to go into the forest to cut down trees or collect firewood.”

A gorilla in the Bwindi forest in Uganda, one of two habitats that have remained for the mountain gorillas (imago / Westend61)

the last honor

Mountain gorillas are the only great apes whose populations have not shrunk in recent years, but rather increased. From 600 animals to over a thousand. Despite the closeness to humans.

“Ruhondeza was the first silverback whose squad was humanized for tourism in Uganda. He got old and when gorillas get old and can’t keep up with the group, they become solitary.”

The population is far from stable. But soon it won’t be able to grow any further. As almost everywhere, the land around their protected areas is densely populated.

“Ruhondeza has chosen to remain on community land. After all these years, he apparently felt safe there and was able to avoid getting into conflict with the younger gorillas in the forest. There was no point in shooing him back. He would have come back anyway. Instead, we asked the people in the villages to leave him alone and take it easy if he occasionally ate from their gardens or fields.”

Where there are no houses, there are fields that supply the global North with cocoa and palm oil. Space that no longer exists for our closest relatives.

“And they said when our people grow old, we’ll take care of them. They wanted to do the same for Ruhondeza. And when his time came and he died, people came out of the villages to pay their respects and visit his grave.”

Share this article
No Comments

Post A Comment