Fifty-five years on, Jane Goodall’s famous chimps still surprise us

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Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania home to a very special group of chimpanzees

Chimps here have been under observation for 55 years by primatologist Jane Goodall

Length of study means wealth of data and scientific infrastructure without parallel

Jane Goodall Foundation looking to preserve ecosystem of Gombe and surrounding areas

CNN  — 

Finding the most famous chimpanzees in the world is a task that would test the most intrepid of explorers.

Reaching the picturesque hinterland of Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania is just the start.

A two-hour boat ride across the vast waters of Lake Tanganyika follows. Finally, we disembark and begin to trek through the dense forests of Gombe for a further hour before the chimps in question are finally glimpsed.

Peering through branches towards the canopies, we spy a mother and her two young boys feasting on palm nuts.

It was close to this spot in 1960 that the Jane Goodall, the British primatologist widely regarded as the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, began her near 55-year study of one specially selected chimp family.

Goodall, now 80 years old, would sit for hours and observe the complex social structures and interactions of her subjects.

The research of that one family and the subsequent generations it has spawned continues to this day, providing ever more fascinating insights into the behavior of the closest living relatives of human beings.

The magic of Gombe

“The magic of Gombe is two factors,” said Emily Boehm, a PhD candidate at the Jane Goodall Institute Research Center, here to study the chimps.

“It’s the opportunity to be here with a well-habituated group of chimpanzees, to come into the forest every day with knowledgeable field assistants. It’s (also) the long term data, because Jane Goodall started this study in the early 60s.”

“We have this incredible opportunity to know the chimps here now, and also their mothers and fathers and their grandmothers and all this incredible information that we have on them.”

Researchers like Emily come from all over the world to study the chimps at Gombe.

There are an estimated 100 chimpanzees there today, broken up into three different communities. The group Goodall studied has the most, with around 60 members.

Meat eaters

Even after 50-plus years, researchers are still surprised by what they learn. Before the program began, chimpanzees were thought to be herbivores but Goodall saw them hunting monkeys and eating meat.

This is a trait we observe as we watch a group of chimps track Colobus monkeys swinging in the trees above them. We also see another industrious bunch fashion tools to try dislodge termites from beneath a mound.

World-renowned primatologist and chimpanzee expert Dr Jane Goodall.

According to senior researcher at the Jane Goodall Foundation, Dr Anthony Collins, activities like these display a high level of intelligence.

“They’re so much like humans. There are so many similarities in what they do, the relationships they have to each other, just all kinds of ways, there are subtle communications between them,” Collins said.

He points to the example of how chimps will look to reconcile and embrace one another after a fight or confrontation. “They have reassurance and forgiveness of things which go wrong,” he said.

Human threat

Despite the behavioral and genetic similarities, however, the chimps proximity to rural human settlements can often be problematic and detrimental to their own well-being.

“In some places that they live, there are lions, leopards, pythons. But on the whole, probably their main enemy is something like me, humans,” Collins continued.

“(Some) people hunt chimps for eating, some places they get bits of chimps for cures, even witchcraft, and for a while there was a trade in baby chimps for their medical research and things like circuses and zoos.”

Goodall's studies have revolutionized what we knew about chimps.

In the dense forest and woodlands of Gombe, chimpanzees and other species are protected from the most destructive aspects of human behavior.