Public misconceptions could be threatening the survival of Chimpanzees

Posted on July 15, 2011


The other night I had the oddest dream. Perhaps it was a combination of too much cheese and wine before bedtime.

Sir David Attenborough

I dreamt that Sir David Attenborough and I were in the jungle together filming a docco about a newly discovered species of ape that had bright green hair. It had the face of a gibbon and the body of a chimp – don’t ask! Anyway, in part of my dream I was lying flat on the ground observing the ape but it started to move closer to me. I couldn’t back away as my foot had become trapped, and before I knew what was happening, I was having a tug-of-war with it over my notes, until it sank its teeth into me, grabbed what it wanted and scampered off. I woke up startled and needless to say, a tad confused.

I’m not sure what triggered the dream, but it reminds me of a similar experience I had while I was filming in Uganda last year. I wasn’t bitten, but I experienced first-hand the strength and aggression of a juvenile chimpanzee (aged 9). She managed to get hold of my tri-pod and snapped it in two like it was a twig.

Chimpanzees in the wild, these animals have incredible strength and do not make suitable pets

Chimpanzees are aggressive animals. When fully grown they are five-times stronger than man. You definitely don’t want to be walloped by one.

Yet according to research many people’s perception of these animals have been influenced by films, advertising and television programmes which makes them think they are gentle, cute and ideal pets.

A new study published by lead author, Dr Steve Ross, founder of Project ChimpCARE and an ape expert at Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, says people’s misconception about chimps could be having a negative effect on conservation efforts both in the wild as well as in captivity and could threaten their survival.

Researchers used composite digital images to test people’s reactions to chimpanzees in different circumstances. The results showed that people did not have a realistic idea of how dangerous or how endangered these animals are. More than 35 per cent of people asked believed their numbers in the wild were stable.

Dr Ross said: “The inaccurate and frivolous portrayal of these complex and endangered primates should be of serious concern to anyone interested in animal care and safety.

“Whether intentional or not, these images are resulting in significant effects on perceptions of chimpanzees that may hinder critical conservation and welfare initiatives that much of the general public supports and provides empirical evidence to support calls to end the use of chimpanzees in the entertainment industry.”

PG Tips advert

Chimps have a long history in films such as Tarzan and TV adverts, such as the PG Tips tea. In the US, many chimps are also kept as pets where it is legal in some states. It’s estimated there could be well over a hundred kept in basements, garages and gardens.

Dr Ross added: “Acting careers of chimps typically last only a few years before they became too large, strong and unmanageable.

“Because chimpanzees can live 50 to 60 years, those deemed no longer useful in the media may end up in sub-optimal housing for the next several decades.”

And this is what happened to Bubbles, Michael Jackson’s pet chimpanzee. It’s been reported that the late King of Pop, used to let the infant chimp sleep in his bedroom in a cot. He’s also believed to have accompanied him to tea with a Japanese mayor.

The Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzee, Bubbles

But as Bubbles matured, he became too difficult to handle and was eventually sent to a California animal sanctuary, and then to his present home, the­­ Centre for Great Apes in Wauchula, Florida.

Chimpanzees are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List. Their numbers are shrinking from at least three African countries and fast approaching extinction.

The study has been published in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE.