Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Farewell to Mboule Camara

This summer we lost someone that, if I can quote a former student and friend of mine (Dr. Michael Waller) was “one of the great characters of my life”. Mboule Camara died in late June 2017. He was born in Maragoundi, Senegal in the 1940s. I met Mboule in the year 2000, when I first traveled to Senegal to conduct a survey of chimpanzees in this savanna habitat. I was introduced to him by Peter Stirling, also a key part of the Fongoli Savanna Chimpanzee Project. Without Peter I would not have met Mboule and without Mboule, I don't think the Fongoli Project would have ever materialized. We rolled on up to Fongoli and asked a bunch of men under a Saba tree if anyone would take us out “en brousse” (to the bush) to find chimpanzee nests. Mboule said he would. He was my first field assistant and my guide to the wonderful world of Fongoli.

Since Mboule passed away, I have thought a lot about what I might write, when it was not as painful to write about this unique man. There is too much to write, in fact. And, many of the stories that I love about Mboule and I know that others love might make him seem too much of a funny or comical figure to those who didn’t know all aspects of the man. So, maybe I won’t write about some of those moments, no matter how endearing they are to me. Maybe I will ask those who knew him to have a private conversation on one of the many messaging platforms we have these days, where we can reminisce about the funny stories we have to tell about our times with Mboule. Because there was so much more to him than that.

One thing that I do want to write about though is something I heard at his funeral. Or, more specifically, at the sacrifice (we’d say memorial in the U.S., I think, or feast or maybe even wake) held in his honor three days after he passed. (I actually missed Mboule’s funeral, as I was out following chimpanzees and didn’t get my messages until the end of the day when I reached a high spot where my cell phone got a signal. He had died early in the morning and was buried before noon. Missing his funeral is one of my great regrets in life.)

I understood virtually nothing that was said at the sacrifice, as most of it was in Malinke, Mboule’s first language. My project manager, Dondo Kante – and Mboule’s longtime friend – translated some of what was said to me. He mentioned the only woman who had gotten up to say something about Mboule. Everything else was said by men. She was crying as she spoke, which brought tears to your eyes, regardless of the fact that you couldn’t understand her. Dondo told me that she related the story of how Mboule helped her with finances while she searched for a place to live, and she talked about what a big heart he had. Many of the things people said were along these same lines. Most people I know from the United States would think that Mboule was a very poor man; yet he helped others and he always put his family first. He was about as genuine as they come.

Mboule was my first field assistant and guide at Fongoli. He revealed a lot to me about the chimpanzees and he learned a lot too. He laughed when I told him chimps ate termites, and I saw him years later schooling students on how chimps ate termites. He told me that chimps used caves, and many primatologists – and others – found this fascinating. Without Mboule, it would have taken me years to discover this. He took me all over the Fongoli range that first year, to the point that I didn’t want to look for another chimpanzee nest. I’d written data on hundreds of nests on one of those days, only to follow Mboule a little more and have him stop and point up to yet more nests. He knew that “bush” like the back of his hand. He had a GPS built into his brain. He could beeline it straight home from anywhere in the 100km area we found the Fongoli chimps using – and he could do it at night. He’d run after me when we were chased by angry bees, hitting them out of my hair so that only he was stung. He helped me bury our dog, Nyegi, something I’ll bet he never imagined doing in his life – and I doubt many of his friends and family would have believed it either. He introduced me to the cultures there, and he was responsible for making it possible for me to work in Fongoli.

Mboule retired some years ago – at least from guiding students and following chimpanzees. (Although he danced so much at our 10th year anniversary of the project that I wondered why the man was retired!) But, we’d always talk about the chimps when I got home from following them. I’d pass by his compound on the way to ours, and he would always ask me if they were in a large group and where they had nested. Then we’d discuss whether that was near or far, what they were eating and if they had caught any monkeys or bushbabies. He’d continue to ask about some chimps that were no longer in the group, but I never had the heart to tell him they’d disappeared. He helped out with orphan chimpanzee Toto and was always eager to learn news of him, even after he went to sanctuary in Guinea. I think that’s one of the things I’ll miss most about Mboule. Those conversations that weren’t even in very much depth because of our language barriers. Still, they meant so much to me, as did Mboule. I will miss him greatly. 

(With thanks for photos to Erin Wessling, Maja Gaspersic, Clayton Clement, & Stephanie Bogart)

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Fongoli chimpanzees featured in New Scientist video clip

New Scientist editor Rowan Hooper recently talked about Fongoli chimpanzees' hunting behavior, and part of the story is featured in this video clip:

An invited presentation at the Chimpanzees in Context symposium by Dr. Stacy Lindshield in August of this year provided an update on the spear-assisted hunting behavior practiced by Fongoli chimpanzees.

Another invited presentation (courtesy Dr. Fiona Stewart and Dr. Niki Tagg's symposium on apes' nocturnal behavior) at the International Primatological Conference, which was in conjunction with the American Society of Primatologists conference this year in Chicago, following the Chimps in Context symposium also previewed research on the Fongoli chimps' nocturnal behavior.

Look for upcoming publications in the near future on this as well as other topics at Fongoli including lethal aggression and the chimps' reactions to snakes and other reptiles!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

It's been a long time since we last posted here, and a lot has happened at Fongoli. The community is doing well and is up to 33 individuals. There are a number of new infants, and we expect Natasha to give birth soon. She is currently traveling alone with her brother (Diouf, shown in the photo above, taken by Fongoli Project Manager Dondo Kante) and her older infant, Pistache (who received his name via a Leakey Foundation donor/auction, and we think Louis Leakey would probably like this chimp a lot!).

In other news, we published an update (We're actually over 350 cases now!) on the tool-assisted or "spear" hunting behavior exhibited by the Fongoli chimps last year in the journal, Royal Society Open Science. We confirmed our earlier findings that females hunt in this manner significantly more than males, although there is no sex difference in hunting success.

The article is free and here is the link:

Orphan Toto is still under our care (Janis Carter and the Foundation for West African Chimpanzees and Friends of Animals and our own Neighbor Ape organization). We are hoping to place him soon with other chimpanzees and in anticipation of this, we have started a fundraiser to help build facilities for the sanctuary he will (hopefully!) be going to.

This link provides some information about this:

The BBC is currently filming at Fongoli, and another BBC documentary is in the works based on filming conducted a couple of years ago, so you will be able to see the chimps again in a couple of new documentaries. Look for some really interesting behaviors - of course! Stay tuned for updates, and I'll try to be better about keeping up with this blog!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Fongoli chimpanzee 2015 calendars available! New report about Neighbor Ape projects in Senegal, Fongoli chimps on BBC & Eva's first infant!

Our first round of sales of the 2015 Fongoli chimpanzee calendars went so well, we are going to put in a second order! These calendars feature the adult males of the Fongoli group this year, as well as rescued orphan Toto. Each calendar is $15 (which includes shipping & handling to anywhere in the world), and your purchase of a calendar also means we will buy a second one to be given away in Senegal as part of our education efforts. If you are interested in a calendar (or two!), you can mail a check or money order to Neighbor Ape, 1216 Burnett Ave., Ames, IA 50010, USA. Funds from the sale of the calendars will be used in one or more of our Neighbor Ape projects, which focus on conservation, healthcare and education in southeastern Senegal.

You can also check out our Neighbor Ape page on Facebook, where you can make calendar purchases via the Facebook "Shop Neighbor Ape" app. Feel free to use the message option there to ask any questions.
We've also just posted a project update on the Global Giving website that talks about our latest healthcare project in southeastern Senegal.

More exciting news is that the Fongoli chimpanzees (especially adolescent male Dawson, shown lounging in a tree in the photo below!) will be featured in one episode of the David Attenborough narrated Life Story on BBC. This series airs in the U.S. in early 2015, but if you live in the U.K., you can catch the Fongoli chimps first in episode three (November 6) and then the Dawson feature in episode four on November 13. Check out the trailer to Life Story which features a few Fongoli chimps, including infant male Louie (Lily's first infant!) right at the beginning.

FINALLY, Fongoli chimpanzee Eva (seen in photo below, in baobab tree with fruit) was seen with her first infant on October 24! Eva transferred into the Fongoli chimpanzee group in 2012, most likely from the unhabituated Bantan group to the west and north of Fongoli. It is not yet known as to whether it is a boy or a girl, but you can find updates here soon!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Fongoli part of larger study of chimpanzee aggression

Research stemming from our 13-year study of the Fongoli chimpanzees is part of a data base to examine factors influencing lethal aggression in chimpanzees and bonobos. Thirty authors representing 22 different chimpanzee and bonobo study groups contributed to this first major attempt to statistically analyze the variables that influence killing in these apes. Chimps are one of the few animals besides humans that kill outright members of their own species. Among primatologists, two major camps have had opposing views: One explanation is that these lethal events are abnormal for chimps and represent the effect of human influence, either through habitat destruction or provisioning such that abnormal levels of competition produce such killing. The other major explanation views lethal aggression as a natural part of chimpanzee nature, such that it is an evolutionary adaptation that contributes to the reproductive success of some individuals (the aggressors).

Our paper found evidence to support the adaptive explanation but not the human influence explanation. Moreover, chimpanzees from East Africa (a different subspecies) were significantly different regarding the rates of these lethal events compared to chimps living in West Africa and compared to bonobos. Fongoli chimpanzees are of the West African subspecies, and lethal aggression is rare among these apes. This analyses goes far in providing evidence to support the hypothesis that lethal aggression is a natural part of a chimpanzee's life, at least in East Africa. However, we would ideally like to support the hypothesis with data showing that individuals that killed others exhibited significantly higher reproductive success. Additionally, our measures of human disturbance look at current conditions for the chimpanzees and bonobos studied. Humans and these apes have been co-existing for millennia, and it is difficult to say how their current populations have been shaped in the past - especially the recent past - by the behavior of humans.

Here are a few links that provide more info on the study:

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Fongoli chimps 2015 calendar available!

We've got 2015 Fongoli chimpanzee calendars available for purchase! $15 each & for every one ordered, we will purchase one to be handed out in Senegal. Checks can be made out to Neighbor Ape & sent to 1216 Burnett, Ames, IA 50010. Or, email

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Update on Fongoli chimps

It's been awhile since I've shared news of the Fongoli chimps, so here is an update! The group is doing well and even though there were no births in 2013, we are expecting at least one in 2014 if not more (Come on Tumbo! Eva?!). David remains the alpha male, and he may have mellowed a little. He is still close with the second ranked male, his brother Mamadou. A number of the younger males have risen up the hierarchy. Jumkin, for example, was mid-ranking in August and had moved near the top of the 12-male hierarchy by December. Mike has been up and down the hierarchy. He comes in pretty assertively and then is relegated to the fringes of the social group after several males join forces to put him in his place.

It's been over a year since our team rescued infant Toto after the death of his mother, Tia, who sustained a poisonous snake bite. Toto has been under the care of Janis Carter of the Baboon Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in The Gambia (see image above of Toto and one of his full-time caregivers, Ousmane). He goes out for trips "en brousse" (in other words, out in the wild) with our team, and he is four times the size of chimps of the same age in the wild. He will have to continue his milk diet (at least partial) until he is two years of age, which is the minimum a chimp could survive in the wild after being orphaned. Chimp infants at Fongoli are normally nursed by their mothers for around four years, although they begin eating other foods much earlier. We have a number of options lined up for Toto as far as his future goes.

Toto was 2 months old when his mother Tia died, and his older sister Aimee was about four (photo above of infant Aimee with her mother Tia - photo by Kelly Boyer). Aimee had been taken by poachers when she was only 9 months old, and although she survived for another four years following this traumatic event, I'm sad to say she disappeared last year. She stayed with the group for approximately 6 months after the death of her mother, and she had been weaned at least 2 months before that, when Toto was born. However, I believe the chimp-napping incident with the poachers did effect her ability to survive without the companionship and support of her mother for very long. Additionally, mother chimps still share some foods with their older offspring, and although Aimee did receive foods like hard-to-process baobab fruit from other group members, it appears she was not able to survive the trauma she experienced early and then later in her young life. Still, Aimee was with her group for another 4 years following her capture by poachers, and young apes rarely live for more than 3 years after such an experience. You can watch video of Aimee's miraculous return to her group by following the link to the National Geographic documentary here. Aimee's story is featured in the first several minutes of this documentary, and you can see some video of her acceptance back by the Fongoli chimps.

The Fongoli group is also adjusting to increased gold mining activity within their home range but in part because of the respect chimpanzees are shown by the people living alongside them, these apes are currently able to deal with such disruption. They will be featured in several documentaries this year, including ones produced by the BBC, National Geographic and Arte TV (France/Germany).