Chimpanzees

Chimpanzees have already disappeared from 4 African countries, and are nearing extinction in many others. Deforestation and commercial hunting for bushmeat are taking a terrible toll on most populations.
Chimpanzee. Grooming session.  Jane Goodall Institute, Gombé Stream National Park, Gombé, Tanzania. rel=
Chimpanzee. Grooming session. Jane Goodall Institute, Gombé Stream National Park, Gombé, Tanzania.
© WWF-Canon / Michel GUNTHER

Key facts

  • Common names

    Chimpanzee, common chimpanzee, robust chimpanzee; Chimpanzés (Fr); Chimpancé (Sp)

  • Scientific name

    Pan troglodytes spp

  • Status

    Endangered

    More

  • Population

    150,000 to 250,000

Sharing 98% of our genes

Chimpanzees are one of our closest relatives, sharing an estimated 98% of their genes with humans.

Four subspecies have been identified, based on differences in appearance and distribution:
  • Western chimpanzee (P. t. verus)
  • Central chimpanzee (P. t. troglodytes)
  • Eastern chimpanzee (P. t. schweinfurthii)
  • Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (P. t. ellioti).

There is a wide range of behavioural differences between groups from different regions, so the loss of any one group represents a loss of cultural as well as biological heritage.

Physical description

The characteristic chimpanzee shape includes arms that extend beyond the knees, opposable thumbs, and a prominent mouth. The skin on the face, ears, palms, and soles of the feet is bare, and the rest of the body is covered with brown to black hair.

Chimpanzees usually move on the ground, although during the day they mostly stay in trees, where they also sleep in makeshift nests made with vegetation. This species walks "on all four", but individuals can also walk on their legs for more than a kilometre. Young individuals sometimes swing from branch to branch.
Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) mother with youngster, captive, Chimfunshi Orphanage, Zambia / ©: naturepl.com/Andy Rouse / WWF
Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) mother with youngster, captive, Chimfunshi Orphanage, Zambia
© naturepl.com/Andy Rouse / WWF

Living in communities

Chimpanzees are found in savanna woodlands, grassland-forest mosaics and tropical moist forests, from sea level to about 3,000m in elevation.

Social structure

Chimpanzees are highly social animals. Their communities consist of loose and flexible groups of males and females (fusion-fission societies) within a fixed home range, led by a dominant male. Members join and leave these communities freely, depending among other on their reproductive status and the availability of resources.

Apart from the dominant leader, there are also groups of individuals with some level of authority. Communities of about 50 individuals each have been reported in forest, woodland and savanna habitat, but overall size range is around 15-80.

Subgroups may include solitary individuals or diverse groups of both sexes and all ages. These aggregations are temporary and constantly change in composition, regardless of gender and age.

Life cycle
Breeding occurs throughout the year. Following a gestation period ranging from 202 and 261 days, females give birth to a single young, and occasionally twins, every 5-6 years. Of these offspring, about three will survive. 

For the first 6 months, the young is carried around clinging to its mother's underbelly, and after that it rides on its mother's back. It weans at 3.5-4.5 years, while still remaining reliant on its mother for a longer period, sometimes up to 10 years. Although chimpanzees reach sexual maturity at about 7 years, females do not produce offspring until they reach 13-14 years of age. Chimpanzees may live until they are over 60.

Diet & feeding
Food items include fruits, leaves and other plant parts, honey, insects (especially termites), and occasionally eggs and meat.

Chimpanzees eat with their hands, which they also use to throw objects at enemies and to create tools. Notably, they will poke a stick into a termite mound to feed on the insects, and crack nuts open.

The animals forage during the day for 6-8 hours, with peaks of activity in the early morning and late afternoon. Depending on the fruiting times of the plants they feed on, activities may shift seasonally.

Chimpanzees sometimes stalk, kill and eat other primates or young antelopes, and may hunt co-operatively.

Habitat

Biogeographic realm
Afrotropical

Range States
Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda

Ecological Region
Guinean Moist Forests, Congolian Coastal Forests, Cameroon Highlands Forests, Northeastern Congo Basin Moist Forests, Central Congo Basin Moist Forests, Western Congo Basin Moist Forests, Albertine Rift Montane Forests

Population & distribution

Previous population & distribution
Chimpanzees had a wide but discontinuous distribution across Equatorial Africa, from southern Senegal across the forested belt north of the Congo River to western Uganda and western Tanzania.

Current population & distribution
Due to a lack of survey data in many regions, current estimates for the wild population range from 150,000 to 250,000 individuals. The distribution is still wide, but considerably smaller and more fragmented.

The largest remaining populations occur in central Africa, mainly Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Cameroon. 

Senegal, Mali, the Cabinda enclave of Angola, Equatorial Guinea, and Sudan contain small, dispersed populations that are seriously at risk. Populations have severely declined in Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Nigeria, Burundi and Rwanda. Côte d'Ivoire, for example, once harboured an important population; however a recent survey found this had declined by 90% over the last 20 years. 

Populations are no longer found in Gambia, Burkina Faso, Benin, or Togo.

  • The central chimpanzee is the most numerous of all chimpanzee subspecies, with a population of up to 115,000 individuals, mostly in Gabon, Cameroon, and Congo. Small, isolated, or relict populations occur in the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, and Angola (Cabinda enclave), south-east Nigeria, and possibly the coastal extension of DRC. Large populations of this subspecies are now found only where large areas of forest remain relatively undisturbed.
     
  • The western chimpanzee once occurred in 13 countries from southern Senegal eastwards as far as the Niger River in central Nigeria. Its distribution is now extremely patchy, reflecting the fragmentation of its habitat. The largest-remaining population is found in Côte D'Ivoire, with smaller populations in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau, and Liberia. Only relict populations are found in Mali, Ghana, and Senegal, and the subspecies is extinct in the wild in Gambia, Burkina Faso, Benin, and possibly Togo. The total population is thought to be about 21,000-55,000 individuals.
     
  • The eastern chimpanzee ranges from the Ubangi River/Congo River in Central African Republic and DRC, to western Uganda, Rwanda and western Tanzania. Small, relict populations are found in Burundi and south-eastern Sudan.
     
  • The Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee is the least numerous subspecies with a total population of less than 6,500 individuals remaining  in Nigeria and Cameroon, north of the Sanaga River. The only relatively large and secure populationis in Gashaka-Gumti National Park in Nigeria, with an estimated population of up to 1,500.  

View Chimpanzee populations in a larger map
Yellow: Western chimpanzee distribution

Green: Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee distribution

Purple: Central chimpanzee distribution

Blue: Eastern chimpanzee distribution

What are the main threats?

The main threats to the chimpanzee are habitat loss and hunting for bushmeat. The relative severity of these threats differs from region to region, but the two are linked. 

Habitat loss and degradation

Degradation of forests through logging, mining, farming, and other forms of land development is contributing to the decline of primate species throughout tropical Africa. Remaining habitat patches are often small and unconnected, leaving chimpanzee populations isolated.

Deforestation is most advanced in West Africa, where only remnant tracts of primary rainforest remain. The small populations of western, Nigerian, and eastern chimpanzees are primarily located in remnant forest reserves and national parks.

In many such "protected areas", poaching for meat and live infants is common, as is unauthorized logging, mining and farming. Logging activities improve access to formerly remote forest areas, leading to increased hunting pressure.

Bushmeat
'Bushmeat' has always been a primary source of dietary protein in Central and West African countries. However in recent years, hunting for bushmeat, once a subsistence activity, has become heavily commercialized and much of the meat goes to urban residents who can afford to pay premium prices for it.

The effect of the bushmeat trade on chimp populations has yet to be evaluated, but a study in Congo showed that offtake was 5-7%, surpassing annual population increase. In addition, apes are often injured or killed in snares set for other animals. Infant chimpanzees are frequently taken alive and sold in the cities as pets.

Many conservationists believe that the bushmeat trade is now the greatest threat to forest biodiversity in West and Central Africa.

Disease - the Ebola crisis
In late 2002 an outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in humans was reported in the north of the Republic of Congo on the border with Gabon. The human infections coincided with a large-scale die-off of great apes in the region.

Two great apes are found in Central Africa, the area currently affected by Ebola: western lowland gorilla and the central chimpanzee. Both have been severely affected by the virus, which has drastically reduced populations. The disease reportedly had a great impact in Odzala National Park, a site known to have the highest density of great apes in Africa.

What is WWF doing?

The WWF African Great Ape Programme is working with many partners to conserve remaining chimpanzee populations, especially in West Africa. Our approach includes:
  • Establishing, strengthening and managing protected areas in a number of chimpanzee range states. Priorities include:
    • Conservation of western chimpanzees in Tai National Park, Côte d'Ivoire
    • Conservation and monitoring of Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees in Gashaka Gumti National Park, Nigeria
    • Conservation of the Tongo populaton of eastern chimpanzees in the Virunga ecosystem, DRC
    • Supporting government efforts to supervise the management of Campo Ma’an National Park, Cameroon, and encourage sustainable use of forest resources in its buffer zone
    • Conservation of central chimpanzees in Mengame, Cameroon
    • Assisting the Ministry of Water and Forests in the Minkebe Conservation Project, a 6,000km2 area recently declared as a national park in Gabon
    • Strengthening  the cross-border Odzala-Minkebe-Dja Trinational Landscape (TRIDOM) complex of protected areas in Gabon, Cameroon and the Republic of Congo. 
       
  • Developing chimpanzee-focused ecotourism, e.g.. in Campo Ma'an National Park, Cameroon and the Central African Republic.
     
  • Stopping illegal killing of chimpanzees in logging concessions and looking for solutions to stop the impact of the bushmeat trade on the species.

» WWF African Great Apes Programme
» More on our work in the Congo Basin

Priority species

As a great ape, chimpanzees are a WWF priority species. WWF treats priority species as one of the most ecologically, economically and/or culturally important species on our planet. As such, we are working to ensure chimpanzees can live and thrive in their natural habitats.

How you can help

  • Buy sustainable wood and paper. By purchasing FSC-certified forest products, consumers, retailers, traders, and manufacturers help protect chimpanzee habitat by encouraging sustainable forestry and limiting illegal logging. Without the FSC label, your timber may well stem from illegal or controversial sources in central Africa.
     
  • Donate to WWF to help support chimpanzee conservation work 
  • Spread the word! Click on the button to share this information with others via email or your favourite social networking service.

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