Photos of Aimee, the rescued baby chimp, courtesy Jill Pruetz
This story began last Sunday when Jill Pruetz, an anthropologist at Iowa State University, sent out a frantic email: “I just got a phone call from Johnny, my field assistant in Senegal, who told me he thinks that an infant chimp from the Fongoli community was taken by people near the southern end of the range,” she wrote.
The initial report was that the baby had been found by two men who had been out hunting when their dogs startled a group of chimpanzees. The apes fled, leaving the baby behind, according to their story.
Pruetz jumped into action. She consulted Janis Carter, who has worked with sanctuary chimps for years in the Gambia and also has ongoing conservation projects in Guinea and Senegal, and then briefly with a vet at Iowa State University about topical medicines for the baby chimp’s scrapes and eye injuries, evident in the photo above.
Then she jumped on a plane to Senegal. We didn’t hear from Pruetz again until today, when she emailed the good news that the baby chimp was reunited successfully with its mother.
Watch Pruetz in this video tell the story of how she reunited the baby chimp with her mother (added to this blog entry on February 6):
The Fongoli chimps — named after a river that runs through their range — were made media stars by Pruetz.
In 2007 she and colleagues reported that, for the first time, great apes — the Fongoli chimps in Senegal — had been observed making and using tools to hunt mammals. The research was funded in part by the National Geographic Society and was featured in National Geographic Magazine and in a NOVA/National Geographic Television documentary.
Also in 2007, Pruetz reported that the Fongoli chimpanzees take shelter from the scorching heat in caves. “The discovery has raised chatter among primate researchers, who say it’s the first known case of regular cave use by an ape species,” National Geographic News reported.
In recognition of her pioneering work, Pruetz was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer last year.
So when Pruetz sent out her urgent email on Sunday, many people were naturally concerned.
She gave me permission to run her email of today on my blog — and I can think of no better way to relate the story than in her own words.
From Jill Pruetz in Senegal, West Africa, January 29, 2009:
I am happy to give you the wonderful news that baby has been delivered back to mom. It turns out that the infant was Aimee, Tia’s first baby.
Tia is one of the top bushbaby hunters at Fongoli too. Aimee is only nine months old, so wouldn’t have been able to survive in the group if Tia had been killed.
Briefly, I arrived in Kedougou Tuesday night just before midnight and slept in the hut next to the baby’s cage. She vocalized a few times during the night and I tried to reciprocate, which worked I think, as she slept a little while every time, but I stayed awake for hours, of course, worrying about her!
She went to sleep finally, and Johnny and I left the next morning at 5am to go out to try and find chimps. He had stayed in Kedougou with the baby, as he was afraid to leave her in [the] charge of others there — which is a good thing given she is so young and would normally nurse maybe once an hour.
But we didn’t know exactly where the chimps were — although we had a general idea given what Michel, my other field assistant, told us of their ranging habits of late.
Johnny and I went out and found a large party of about 15, with a female with no infant (all but one of the females in our group carry infants currently). It was Tia, and she was wounded, as the guys had described.
Johnny stayed with the chimps and I literally jogged back to camp and carried the baby out — the chimps were about 2 kilometers from camp.
My other field assistant Michel carried my gear and I carried Aimee. We put her in a sack when we got close to the chimps because we wanted to leave her and move away so the chimps wouldn’t see us with the baby — we were afraid they would attack us upon seeing we had the baby.
The baby was so small and understandably confused, though, that she didn’t vocalize when she heard the chimps, so we ended up all three walking together with the bag to within about 30 feet of the chimp party feeding in a fig tree. We put the bag down and opened it and backed away about 25 feet.
Mike, an adolescent whose own mother disappeared soon after he was weaned, came down and approached the baby, who just sat in the sack and looked from us to the chimps. He looked at her and smelled her and then picked her up and took her to the tree where her mother, Tia, raced down and retrieved her!
I followed them for the rest of the day and baby seemed to do fine. She was nursing and even played a little with her mother. She didn’t move more than an arm’s length from Tia for most of the day — she had one hand on her at all times!
Later on in the day, when the party began to travel, Tia ended up last, stopping frequently to worry over her wound, which attracted a lot of flies. Each time, she would set the baby down.
Finally, Mike – the adolescent who went and retrieved Aimee in the first place – picked up the baby and carried her for Tia for the next 15 minutes!
Tia took the baby back when they reached a spot where the whole group fed, and they slept not very far from there.
The last time I saw them yesterday, Tia was feeding on Keno flowers and Aimee was sitting about a foot from her. The chimps slept there, and my assistant Michel is following them today, and keeping an eye on Tia and Aimee.
I came into town to talk to the Forestry Department officials about this problem as well as projects we are either currently working on or would like to implement specifically about conservation.
It turns out that the people who captured Aimee were two high-school age young men who live in Kedougou but routinely go out to the woodlands in the southern part of the chimps’ range to hunt warthogs, etc. with their dogs.
I can write more about this problem and our efforts to solve it later, but I don’t want to dwell on that side of things today — I really just wanted to fill you in on the details of the miraculous return of Aimee. I don’t know if this has ever happened before, but the likelihood of a baby chimpanzee actually being returned to its mother like this has to be pretty rare occurrence, especially given the fact that the mother is most often killed in the process. In fact, I can hardly believe it myself.
Most of the credit has to go to Johnny Kante. He fed Aimee every time she vocalized! He would make a great chimp mom, I told him!
Neighbor Ape: Nonprofit dedicated to conserving Senegal’s chimps
Fongolichimps: Research blog about Fongoli chimps
National Geographic Magazine: Fongoli Chimps — Almost Human
Chimps Use “Spears” to Hunt Mammals, Study Says (National Geographic News)
Chimps Use Caves to Beat the Heat, Scientists Find (National Geographic News)
Chimpanzee profile, facts, video (National Geographic Animals)