The great apes, our dear cousins

Their resemblance to us is uncanny and they help us to know ourselves better. There’s a reason great apes fascinate scientists! Go and meet them in the heart of the tropical forests, where our researchers observe them to better protect them.

Filou, juvénile mâle bonobo

Filou, juvénile mâle bonobo de la communauté de Manzano dans une jachère.

© MNHN - V. Narat

Orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos... the great apes have always fascinated us. You too, no doubt. How can you not be sensitive to their expressions, their look, their sociability? And for good reason, we are part of the same family: the hominids. But beyond curiosity, the study of our close relatives gives us information about ourselves and our environment. Moreover, our 'cousins' are threatened on all sides by deforestation, global warming and poaching: they are in danger of extinction and in order to protect them, it is urgent to make them known. This is the motivation for our researchers, who have been investigating them for years: life habits, diet, health, behaviour in relation to other species...

Here you are in the middle of the African forest, more precisely in Uganda, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is where scientists can study some of our cousins, chimpanzees, western gorillas and bonobos in their natural habitat.

Collecting data on these species is a real feat! It can take years to get close to these wild animals and to make any observations. Bonobos and chimpanzees live in communities of dozens of individuals on a territory of several square kilometres, while Western gorillas live in harems of females and their children around the dominant male, the 'silverback'. And it took our scientific teams five to ten years to gain acceptance from them at a minimum distance of eight metres! This work was started in 2000 for chimpanzees and gorillas and in 2010 for bonobos.

Œuf de strongles observés au microscope optique (x400)

Un oeuf de strongles observés au microscope optique (x400) dans une crotte de bonobos. Les strongles sont des parasites intestinaux relativement fréquent chez les bonobos et les chimpanzés.

© MNHN - V. Narat

Objectives: to better understand their use of the territory and their relations with local populations, to improve their protection but also to anticipate certain risks to human health. Given their genetic proximity to us, great apes are reservoirs of pathogens that could contaminate us... and vice versa. Thanks to the collection of excrement preserved in formaldehyde at the Museum, researchers have been able to make an inventory of intestinal parasites.

Great apes can also help us heal ourselves! Let’s head to Uganda. The team is observing wild chimpanzees in the Sebitoli area, where the Museum has set up a research and protection station for these animals. They consume or preferentially use a particular plant as a remedy for parasites, coughs and wounds. Their pharmacopoeia includes nearly 40 plants! By locating these plants, researchers can isolate and then identify the active molecules they contain, perhaps opening up new therapeutic avenues. This approach illustrates the concept of "One Health", the link between animal, human and environmental health.

Conservation is also at the heart of our missions. For example, the Museum participates in the FoFauPopU project to preserve the Kibale National Park, which has the highest density of primates in the world, in collaboration with local populations. Researchers also rely on them to protect bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The accumulated knowledge allows us to be a driving force behind the protection of the great apes, for example in connection with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). We must continue!

Research team

The team from the unitUMR 7206 Éco-anthropologie (EA) concerned with the study of great apes is the IPE team (Primates and Environment Interactions).

Published in September 2021

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