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Sanctuaries Aid Research and Vice Versa

Science  31 Aug 2007:
Vol. 317, Issue 5842, pp. 1339
DOI: 10.1126/science.317.5842.1339
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It's feeding time at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, and keepers are tossing chunks of pineapple, avocado, banana, and papaya to dozens of eager chimps who make a racket as they scramble for the falling fruit. Brian Hare, a biological anthropologist visiting from Germany, looks on gleefully. “Look at all those chimps!” he exclaims. “I love it!”

His work here is part of a project to compare the social behavior of chimpanzees and bonobos (see main text), in particular, cooperation—something at which he himself excels. Although currently based at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, it's obvious that he's forged strong relationships here. He exchanges animated greetings with the keepers in Luganda, a local language, and chats with them over dinner about politics—both Ugandan and chimpanzee—catching up on the latest scandals and power struggles in both realms. Hare has also recently established ties with two other African ape sanctuaries and hopes other researchers will follow his lead.

It's a mutually beneficial arrangement, Hare says. Sanctuaries provide a home to animals orphaned by the bush-meat trade or rescued from pet traders, and they promote the conservation of wild apes in the few areas where these animals still remain. They benefit from the support and expertise of visiting scientists. And researchers get their money's worth. Work at the sanctuaries is considerably cheaper and entails less red tape than at many zoos and primate centers, Hare says. Moreover, the sanctuaries have larger numbers of apes than many other facilities and provide more natural living conditions.

At Ngamba, for example, 42 chimpanzees have free rein over 39 hectares of rainforest on the 40-hectare island in the Ugandan section of Lake Victoria. During the day, the chimps forage, play, and interact much like chimps in the wild. They can sleep in the forest too, but most prefer the hammocks slung near the ceiling in the caged enclosure, which doubles as a behavior lab. “It's better for us as researchers because we get to work with apes that are a little more psychologically healthy and have a much richer and [more] natural environment” than zoos or primate centers can provide, Hare says. In addition to work at Ngamba, he has begun studies at the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Congo and the Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the only sanctuary in the world for these highly endangered apes.

The sanctuaries also stand to gain, says Ngamba director Lilly Ajarova. Hare's research on social relationships among the Ngamba chimps, for example, has taught the keepers a great deal about how different individuals get along and how to manage them, Ajarova says. In addition, Hare's grant money has paid to renovate the sanctuary's kitchen and allowed one of its veterinarians to pursue Ph.D. research in microbiology in Germany.

Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham, who helped set up the Ngamba sanctuary and encouraged Hare to pursue research there, sees “wins all around, for chimpanzees, managers, and researchers.” Like Hare, he would like to see the sanctuaries become a sharable resource for ape researchers, whose populations of subjects in developed countries may dwindle as breeding restrictions tighten (Science, 1 June, p. 1265). “The sanctuaries are a godsend for the future of our science,” Hare says.

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