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Liberia's 'Planet of the Apes' Chimps Facing Starvation

A colony of 66 chimps has been at the center of an international storm since a New York-based blood bank funding it announced it would stop supporting the animals Continue reading →

A speedboat laden with fruit approaches and four chimpanzees come bounding over from the dense forest, screeching excitedly as volunteers throw them pineapple and mango chunks.

The apes are part of a colony of former research lab captives enjoying retirement uncaged on an atoll deep in the jungle of southern Liberia, known as Monkey Island.

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The only significant inhabitants of the six islets, the chimps have been living an idyllic existence, fed by human volunteers on their very own ‘Planet of the Apes' - a nickname given to the archipelago by local media.

But the colony of 66 chimps has been at the centre of an international storm since the New York-based blood bank funding it announced in March it was stopping the cash.

The New York Blood Center (NYBC), which carried out about 30 years of biomedical research on the animals, had publicly committed to their lifelong care after they were retired in 2005.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is supporting the colony through emergency fundraising as the Liberian government and the blood bank lock horns over who should be responsible for their care.

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"NYBC may believe that people will forget and that this will go away, but I can assure you that it won't," HSUS vice-president Kathleen Conlee told AFP in an email from Washington DC.

"They are absolutely responsible for the long-term care of these chimpanzees."

Conlee described the chimps' care costs - estimated at $30,000 (27,000 euros) a month - as "a mere drop in the bucket for this organisation that has hundreds of millions in revenue annually".

‘Moral obligation' The Liberia Biomedical Research Institute (LBRI) entered into an agreement with the NYBC in 1974 to carry out research in a lab about 65 kilometres (40 miles) southeast of Monrovia, capturing or buying the chimpanzees.

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The research project had gained a world class reputation in the field of viral infections, particularly hepatitis, by the time it ended and the NYBC appeared to make a commitment to the chimps in retirement as a reward for their contribution.

NYBC director Alfred Prince wrote in the American Society of Primatologists Bulletin in 2005 that Monkey Island was to become "a dedicated full-time sanctuary."

"NYBC recognises its responsibility to provide an endowment to fund the sanctuary for the lifetime care of the chimpanzees," he wrote.

The chimps are entirely reliant on humans for their survival, as there is no year-round fresh water supply or enough food on their islets.

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LBRI head Fatorma Bolay said initial emergency funding from the HSUS, pooled with cash from other sources, had probably saved the animals from dehydration and starvation.

World-renowned chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall sent an open letter to the NYBC in May urging the organisation to consider its "moral obligation" to continue funding the chimps' care.

"I find it completely shocking and unacceptable that NYBC would abandon these chimpanzees and discontinue support for even their basic needs," she wrote.

AFP emailed and telephoned the NYBC but the centre did not respond to requests for comment.

'No different from humans' John Abayomi Zeonyuway, a volunteer at the institute, showed AFP the animals' care routine on a recent visit to Monkey Island, a 25-minute speedboat ride up the John River from Roberts International Airport.

As the boat approached the first of the islets, a nine square-kilometre patch of jungle known as Island Five, a welcoming party of four chimps began screeching and jumping up and down excitedly.

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"This is their way of saying that the food is here," Zeonyuway explained as he threw pawpaws, bananas and other fruit for the animals.

Zeonyuway visits the colony every second day, and each time he does a mental roll call to ensure all are present and in good health.

"I can't see Samanta. Bullet is here - he's already eating," he called out to his crew as the rest of the residents came to join the feast.

The boat then proceeded to Island Four, 15 minutes away, where the clan of 10 apes included four unplanned babies, the result of failed vasectomies, according to the HSUS.

Birth control efforts have since been stepped up so that the population doesn't grow further.

At all six of the islands the routine was the same: an excited greeting and a feast for the animals.

"The chimps are part of me. I am glued to them because I see them every other day," Zeonyuway told AFP.

"They are no different from humans. They fight and they make peace. They need help, they need attention. We cannot afford to lose these animals to hunger and sickness."

A file photos shows a group of chimpanzees eating sugarcane at the rehabilitation center for apes at the New York Blood Center near Monrovia.

Laughs and smiles in chimps turn out to be far more human-like than previously thought and they date to at least 5 million years ago, suggests a new study on chimpanzee facial expressions and vocalizations. Laughter is not 100 percent identical between the two primates, but people who hear a chuckling chimp usually have little trouble figuring out what the sound generally means. Chimps go "h-h-h," while humans sound more like "ha-ha-ha" or "he-he-he," said Marina Davila Ross, a senior lecturer in the University of Portsmouth's Department of Psychology and lead author of the study in PLOS ONE. Then there is the flexibility of the sounds and related expressions. "Chimpanzees, like humans, can produce their facial expressions free from their vocalizations," Ross explained. "This ability is important for humans. For instance, it allows us to add a smile while talking or laughing, and we can also produce smiles silently. Until now, we did not know that non-human primates also have this ability." It's even possible that the skills first emerged in the common ancestor of chimps and humans.

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In both humans and chimps, facial expressions associated with laughter and happiness usually involve an open mouth with a display of teeth. "Open mouth expressions, otherwise known as play faces, or as we call them, laugh faces, typically expose the lower teeth by virtue of the mouth being wide or stretched open," co-author Kim Bard, who is a professor of comparative developmental psychology at the University of Portsmouth, told Discovery News. "We found that there were many types of open mouth expressions, including some configurations with the upper lip drawn up, which sometimes exposes the upper teeth."

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Little Callie the chimp, shown in this photo, is enjoying a good laugh with a human friend. Chimps, like people, sometimes laugh and smile when they are alone, too. "We know that laughter and open mouth faces occur mostly during play, but they can occur in solitary play as well as social play," Bard said. "So our current theory is that laughter (in chimps) is typically associated with feelings of joy."

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Both young chimps and children tend to laugh and smile a lot, probably because they play more than adults do (and have less to worry about). But why would teeth be exposed as a sign of friendliness? Some experts suspect that the open mouth/exposed teeth expression, during non-threatening play times, allows the other individual to learn how to assess others and to adjust their reactions. Another theory is that a toothy smile often is a visual signal of submissiveness, given that the jaws are usually drawn backward as opposed to the forward thrust of a "grrr" sound and related facial expression.

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Since laughter is seen and heard by others, it works wonders as a social bonding tool. In this case, the baby chimp is laughing as its mother tickles its stomach. The researchers suspect that bonobos, like chimps and humans, also benefit from this type of bonding, and have very flexible facial expressions and vocalizations.

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So far, observations of chimps show they are always honest laughers, meaning that the sounds function as true signals of joy. People, on the other hand, are notorious for fake laughter. We can smile and laugh as though we are happy, even when we're not. There is, however, a complex twist to chimp laughter: what elicits happiness in some might not in others. "I've seen adolescent males (chimps) who sometimes exhibit bullying behavior, laughing softly while they are picking on another chimpanzee, who is usually not enjoying the interaction," Bard said. "When the victim gets annoyed enough to try to stop the bullying behavior, then the adolescent can respond with greater laughter, which is even more annoying!" "So the laughter is 'joyful,'" she said, "but the adolescent finds picking on another chimpanzee, and even their attempt at retaliation, to be something that brings the adolescent some joy."

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Studying the origin of laughter and smiles could help researchers better understand disorders such as autism. This condition is characterized, in part, by difficulties communicating via such signals, and in forming relationships with others. The research also helps us to better understand the abilities of non-human primates, and our evolutionary connections to them. As this image and the one before it show, there's not much difference between a chimp "laugh face" and the typical expression of humans as they enjoy a good guffaw.