Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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A three-month-old chimpanzee photographed at Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Florida.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

What is the chimpanzee?

Chimpanzees are great apes found across central and West Africa. Along with bonobos, they are our closest living relatives, sharing 98.7 percent of our genetic blueprint. Humans and chimps are also thought to share a common ancestor who lived some seven to 13 million years ago.

Behavior

Chimpanzees are highly social. They live in communities of several dozen animals, led by an alpha male and his coalition of male allies. Research has shown that male and female chimps have individual personalities, with females being more trusting and timid. Grooming is an important part of their social life, helping chimpanzees bond as they remove ticks and dirt from one another’s bodies.

Although they normally walk on all fours (knuckle-walking), chimpanzees can stand and walk upright. Chimpanzees have long arms, hands, and fingers, which help them climb trees and swing from branch to branch.

Tool use

This intelligent animal is one of the few species we know to use tools—which primatologist Jane Goodall famously observed in 1960. Her groundbreaking discovery led archeologist Louis Leakey to declare, “Now we must redefine ‘tool,’ redefine ‘man,’ or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

As Goodall observed, chimpanzees shape and use sticks to retrieve insects from their nests or dig grubs out of logs. They use stones to smash open tasty nuts and employ leaves as sponges to soak up drinking water. And chimpanzees can even be taught to use some basic human sign language.

Habitat and diet

Chimpanzees have the widest range of any great ape. Though many populations live in tropical rainforests, they can also be found in woodlands and grasslands spanning from central to western Africa. They usually sleep in trees—typically the sturdy Ugandan ironwood tree, which offers the most firm and stable place to sleep—and build themselves nests of leaves.

Chimps also do most of their eating in trees. Though they generally prefer fruits and plants, they have a varied diet that also includes insects, eggs, nuts, and hundreds of other things. They relish meat, and have been known to kill and eat monkeys, small antelope, and even tortoises, which they slam against trees to break open their shells.

Reproduction

Females chimpanzees can give birth at any time of year, typically to a single infant that clings to its mother's fur and later rides on her back until the time of weaning between ages three and five. Females reach reproductive age at 13, while males are not considered adults until they are 15.

Threats to survival

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has declared the chimpanzee an endangered species—and the booming human population is primarily to blame. As humans move into more and more of the chimp’s geographic range, they clear away the ape’s forest habitat to make way for agriculture. Logging, mining, oil extraction, and new road and highway projects threaten to further degrade and fragment the chimp’s habitat.

In western Uganda, habitat loss has fueled conflict between humans and our closest relatives. Deforestation not only makes it harder for chimps to find a place to live, but it also strains their wild food supply. In desperation, many resort to foraging from the homes of humans nearby. Though they mostly steal fruit and other food within reach, the apes occasionally snatch and kill small children. Humans kill chimps in retaliation and to protect their families from future attacks.

Bushmeat hunters target chimps because they provide more meat than smaller mammals, sometimes collecting their offspring as pets for themselves or to sell into the illegal pet trade. And chimpanzees are susceptible to infectious diseases, too. Since the 1980s, the Ebola virus has killed them in significant numbers.

Conservation

Chimpanzees are protected by national and international laws, including the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Some of their habitat is protected as sanctuaries or reserves, too. Conservation organizations are working to expand these protected areas, while also pushing for an end to the illegal killing and taking of the animals.

Key to securing the future of the chimpanzee, though, is improving its relationship with humans. Many organizations work with communities to build awareness about the threats chimpanzees face, develop action plans to preserve their habitats, and help community members develop alternative livelihoods that do not jeopardize the animal’s habitat.


WATCH: Aftermath of a Chimpanzee Murder Caught in Rare Video

VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED. It was a grisly sight: a murdered chimpanzee, his body beaten, bloodied—and partially cannibalized—by the community he used to lead.