Posted on 13th July 2018 by Media Relations
On 1 July 1960 a female Chimpanzee was born at Taronga Zoo. This female became known as Spitter, and was the first mother-raised infant at Taronga. Two weeks later a young English woman named Jane Goodall entered Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. Her discoveries there would revolutionise what the world understood about Chimpanzees.
This happy coincidence means that Spitter at 58, is not only one of the oldest verified Chimpanzees, but perhaps the oldest Chimpanzee still living in a Zoo. Spitter is a great-grandmother and as such still plays an important part in Taronga’s Chimpanzee community of 21 individuals.
Taronga’s Chimpanzee community has long been regarded as a benchmark in the Zoo community. Largely due to the way that they are managed. Our Chimpanzees exist in a multiple male, multiple female community 24/7. This replicates what Dr Jane Goodall observed in wild Chimpanzee communities all those years ago.
The success of Taronga’s Chimpanzee community is not solely the result of a multiple group. Here at Taronga we have a policy of minimal intervention, meaning we allow our group to self-manage. While of course we do influence parts of their lives, we do allow our Chimpanzees to work out Chimpanzee politics amongst themselves. We do this because of our understanding of Chimpanzee ecology, (as a result of the work of Dr Jane Goodall and others who followed her).
Chimpanzees often resolve issues through power (i.e. fighting). We acknowledge this and do not engage in keeper intervention. By allowing our Chimpanzees to self-manage, their disputes are settled quickly, our adult males feel empowered and our community displays a wide gamut of natural behaviours – many that are not seen in other Zoo communities, such as overhand clasp grooming and a variety of tool designs for termite dipping.
Chimpanzee communities have their own culture and Taronga’s Chimpanzee community is no exception. Overhand clasp grooming is only documented in three places in the world: Chimpanzee communities in the Eastern parts of Chimpanzee range in Africa; Yerkes Primate Centre in the US; and, Taronga Zoo.
Zoo husbandry is a constantly evolving profession and our management of Chimpanzees reflects that. When I first started working with chimps 25 years ago, we would separate males from females every evening, this was often an extremely lengthy and challenging experience for both Chimps and keepers. The reasoning for that was the globally accepted view that females needed protection from males overnight. We soon realised that this policy led to more intensive aggressive displays from the males the next morning, as individuals would strive to reassert their dominance. This led to a Taronga policy of keeping the Chimpanzees together 24/7.
A further evolution was the concept of leaving the Chimps with access to the outside habitats 24/7. This has resulted in a significant decrease in tension within the community.
However, it is not only the keepers that have evolved in regard to Taronga’s Chimpanzee community.
In 2015, in order to provide genetic diversity and enable Taronga’s community to continue to be successful for the next 50 to 100 years, new female Chimpanzees were moved from European zoos to Taronga. These new females did not display overhand clasp grooming and they were clueless in the art of termite dipping. We are happy to report that the new girls have embraced Taronga’s culture and exhibit these behaviours adeptly. We hope that they continue to grow and learn Taronga Chimpanzee culture.
By Allan Schmidt, Senior Primate keeper
Taronga supports Chimpanzee conservation in the wild in partnership with the Jane Goodall Institute Australia. We support one of Jane’s largest sanctuaries for chimpanzees that are orphaned due to the illegal bush meat and pet trade. Taronga has helped to develop island sanctuaries where the Chimpanzees can live natural and rich lives – much like Taronga Zoo.
You too can help conserve Chimpanzees. The next time you come to the zoo bring along your old mobile phones for recycling. There is a mineral in mobile phones that is mined in Chimpanzee habitat. By recycling old phones we are slowing down the demand for this mineral and saving habitat.