Last fertile female in tool-using chimp tribe gives birth to a girl

Hope for future of famous tool-wielding tribe of chimpanzees in Guinea after last fertile female gives birth to a healthy baby girl

  • The last fertile female in the tool-wielding tribe is in her 30s and named Fanle
  • Scientists spotted the baby on Fanle and confirmed the sex using binoculars 
  • Including the new baby there are only eight individuals left in the Bossou tribe
  • This is due in part to sickness and girls leaving to go to other remote tribes
  • They rarely make the return journey as it involves crossing an open savannah 

A new glimmer of hope has opened up for a tribe of tool using chimpanzees after the last fertile female gave birth to a healthy  baby girl.

The tiny community of apes, famed for their remarkable use of tools, lives in a forest around the village of Bossou, in the far southeastern corner of the country.

Scientists have been making the journey to the remote location for decades to study how the small group use tools – including a stone hammer and anvil to crack nuts.

The tribe is dying off and cannot be replenished by neighbouring chimp communities because forest destruction has left it isolated.

After years of sad decline, there has been good news. Last week guides spotted the last fertile female in the group – Fanle – clutching a tiny baby on her belly. 

A number of chimps have been shown to use tools – including this one at a sanctuary in Kenya – but its prevalence among the Bossou tribe in Guinea makes them particularly interesting 

Aly Gaspard Soumah, director of the Bossou Environmental Research Institute, said they were able to confirm the sex of the baby using binoculars – it is female.

The Bossou apes have a unique relationship with the village population, who were said to have erupted with joy when they heard of the new infant female.

The animals live in the wild but share the territory and its resources with the locals, who protect the chimps, believing them to be the reincarnation of their ancestors.

‘Everyone, young and old, men and women, erupted in joy — the atmosphere was incredible,’ Soumah said in a phone call to Afp.

Bossou is part of the Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve, a UNESCO-listed site located on the borders with Ivory Coast and Liberia.

The region rises above the surrounding savannah and the famous apes live in a forest of 790 acres cut off from other chimps living on the slopes of Mount Nimba.

They’ve been left isolated due to deforestation as locals practice a traditional slash-and-burn form of agriculture that leaves forest cover fragmented.

‘It’s a geographical and genetic isolation,’ Soumah explained. 

Until 2003, the number of Bossou chimps was stable, with around 21 individuals – but seven died of flu in 2003 and others passed away the following years.

This has left just three adult males and four adult females before the latest birth – and of these – three are over 60 and the youngest is an eight-year-old male.

The mother, Fanle, aged in her 30s, is the last fertile female living in the tribe – the father is thought to be Fouaf the dominant male in the group and aged in his 40s.

Soumah said females aged between eight and 12 have been recorded leaving Bossou to join other groups – a trek that requires them to cross the open savannah.

Unfortunately ‘this migration is one way,’ as chimps are usually loath to venture out into the open – leaving the tool-using group isolated and depleted. 

Cogito ergo sum? A chimp at the Bioparco Zoo in Rome during a heatwave in August this year. Scientists have been making the journey to the remote location for decades to study how the small group use tools – including a stone hammer and anvil to crack nuts

Female chimps are capable of having offspring every four or five years, which means that Fanle ‘by herself will not be able to reproduce the social dynamic of the group,’ in terms of numbers and genetic diversity, Soumah cautioned.

But other means are available to buttress the Bossou population after the unexpected birth – including the creation of a ‘migration corridor’ to enable two-way traffic between isolated communities and their cousins in the hills.

Eleven hectares of forest have been planted in 2020, and 26 hectares are scheduled for 2021 to help build up this passageway.

Another possibility is to introduce young females into the tribe – an idea that has its critics, ‘who contend that this is a group living in the wild, which should deal with its own natural destiny,’ Soumah said.

The big question now is about what to name her baby.

‘We are going to invite prominent figures, the local authorities, partners we work with, to find one for her,’ Soumah said.

WHICH ARE SMARTER: CHIMPS OR CHILDREN?

Most children surpass the intelligence levels of chimpanzees before they reach four years old.

A study conducted by Australian researchers in June 2017 tested children for foresight, which is said to distinguish humans from animals.

The experiment saw researchers drop a grape through the top of a vertical plastic Y-tube.

They then monitored the reactions of a child and chimpanzee in their efforts to grab the grape at the other end, before it hit the floor.

Because there were two possible ways the grape could exit the pipe, researchers looked at the strategies the children and chimpanzees used to predict where the grape would go.

The apes and the two-year-olds only covered a single hole with their hands when tested.

But by four years of age, the children had developed to a level where they knew how to forecast the outcome.

They covered the holes with both hands, catching whatever was dropped through every time.

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