Africa’s Great Apes

The great apes challenge our Homo Sapien identity more than any other species. Mankind has defined itself by certain traits that we believe are special to us. However, research has shown that bonobos, gorillas and chimpanzees also share some of our most treasured qualities.

   Physiologically, apes and humans have the same internal organ arrangement and the same skeletal structure – but with different proportions and densities. We both illustrate varying degrees of sexual dimorphism, and we even have the same Y-5 molar structure.

   It was originally believed that only humans were able to master the skill of using tools, but the great apes have proven to have a reasonably high level of cognitive ability.

   They have also demonstrated having a sense of self. When they look into a mirror, they see their own reflection and not that of another ape. The Great Ape Project has even sought to give apes basic human rights based on their emotional capacities.

   We share 98.7% of our DNA with the chimpanzee and bonobo, making them our closest living relatives and part of our evolutionary family tree.

   This issue aims to provide you with the chance to meet your nine ‘ancestral cousins’ in Africa. Click on the ‘Next’ button above each photo to find out where to see them, what their challenges are, and what they have achieved.

Eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) ©Andrew Bernard, GRACE

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   The eastern lowland gorilla, otherwise referred to as the Grauer’s gorilla, is the largest of the gorilla subspecies. This 440-pound gentle giant is ‘bananas’ about fruit, and 25% of its diet is fruit that it has foraged in the forest.

   Due to its Hulk-like physique, the eastern lowland gorillas are arguably the most impressive subspecies. The dominant male of a gorilla group is known as a silverback, and this title is due to what looks like a silver saddle on his back. The dominant silverback will protect the group as well as determine migration patterns, and they do actually beat their chests and bare their teeth at unwanted intruders – especially challenging males.

    The eastern lowland gorilla prefers the lowland rainforests of his homeland, but sadly now only occupies 13% of its historical range. It is estimated that there are between 2,000 to 5,000 eastern lowland gorillas left in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but civil unrest and land mines prevent any accurate studies on the subspecies, while threatening the remaining population.


The black-bellied pangolin, the okapi and the African grey parrot all have one thing in common with the eastern lowland gorilla – they all only occur in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

   However, if you don’t feel safe travelling through parts of the country due to the political unrest, you can visit the subspecies at GRACE, a centre that provides facilities and care for rescued eastern lowland gorillas while working alongside local communities to ensure gorilla survival in the wild.


Western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) ©Will Burrard-Lucas

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The western lowland gorilla is not only smaller and browner than the other subspecies of gorilla, but it also has the largest population and is the most widely spread of the four gorilla subspecies.

   The good news is that there are still 95,000 remaining individuals living in the tropical forests of six African countries. The bad news is that it is classified by the IUCN as Critically Endangered as a result of a steep 60% decline in their numbers over the past 25 years. This is due to logging of their rainforest kingdom, young gorillas being traded as pets, and serious poaching for the bushmeat trade.

   Michael, a famous western lowland gorilla from the The Gorilla Foundation, was known for his elaborate and colourful paintings. He also knew 600 signs in an adapted version of American sign language. His keepers believe that the following sentence is Micheal describing his mother’s death, which highlights the menace of poaching that threatens the western lowland gorilla populations: “Squash meat gorilla. Mouth tooth. Cry sharp-noise loud. Bad think-trouble look-face. Cut/neck lip (girl) hole.”

   Diseases such as Ebola virus have also had a significant effect on the numbers of western lowland gorillas. The Minkebe Forest in Gabon used to be a safe haven for them but Ebola has subsequently wiped out 90% of the apes living there.


The western lowland gorilla occurs in Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Republic of Congo. But the best place to see this subspecies is arguably in the depths of the Congo rainforest. You may want a guide at hand so why not treat yourself to a stay at an all-inclusive trip where everything is organised for you? Email Africa Geographic Travel and the team will happily tailor an itinerary to your needs.


A baby mountain gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei) ©Billy Dodson

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Dian Fossey put this subspecies on the map thanks to her hairy mountain gorilla friend called Digit. The mountain gorilla is the second most endangered of the four gorilla subspecies, with fewer than 900 individuals left on the slopes of the volcanic Virunga Mountains.

   It is also one of the most famous of the gorilla subspecies thanks to Joe, the giant silverback mountain gorilla who starred alongside the South African actress, Charlize Theron, in the film, Mighty Joe Young. Hollywood just couldn’t get enough of this beautiful subspecies and Leonardo Di Caprio even produced Virunga – a documentary about the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the mountain gorillas in its renowned national park.

   The efforts to help preserve mountain gorillas have come a long way from when Dian used to sketch each gorilla’s nose as a means of identification. There is even an annual gorilla naming ceremony in Rwanda called ‘Kwita Izina’. This event takes place at the base of the Volcanoes National Park and new born gorillas are named by the community to highlight the country’s efforts to protect the endangered species from deforestation and poaching.

    When it comes to poaching, these gorillas are not monkeying around, and mountain gorillas have even been known to dismantle poachers’ snares. However, Digit did not have a lucky escape and he sadly died defending his troop from poachers in 1977. In the wake of his death, Dian founded the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund to help the plight of gorillas, and the tent that she pitched in the mountains became a leading research centre.

   “When you realise the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate on the preservation of the future.” – Gorillas in the Mist


The mountain gorillas live amidst the bamboo and rainforests that cover the Virunga Mountains, bisecting DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. You can meet this incredible subspecies in this definitive region with Premier Safaris.

   Just don’t forget to maintain a seven-metre distance when you encounter these magnificent creatures, as it is becoming a growing concern among scientists that tourists are getting too close.

   You could also go gorilla trekking in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park with Africa Geographic Travel.

A rare camera trap photo of a cross river gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli) ©Wildlife Conservation Society



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Meet the world’s most endangered great ape – the cross river gorilla. There are only between 200 and 300 of these gentle knuckle-walkers left in the mountains of Nigeria and Cameroon. The cross river gorilla is slightly smaller than the western lowland gorilla to which it is the most closely related out of all the gorilla subspecies. However, less is known about the cross river gorilla as it isn’t as researched by scientists.

   The population is at risk from inbreeding due to fragmentation and low population numbers. It is against the culture in Cameroon to consume gorilla meat as the locals believe that the gorilla is too similar in its genetic make-up to humans. However, a limited understanding of these gorillas has nevertheless resulted in their deaths at the hands of fearful locals.

   The cross river gorilla has also been known to mimic the negative behaviour of farmers, loggers and leaf gatherers that they encounter in the forest. However, the learned patterns that they have displayed of throwing earth and branches at people is testament to how they are often treated by the locals.



You can see the cross river gorilla in Nigeria and Cameroon, where it is a flagship species. Although tourism is relatively undeveloped in these destinations, eco-tourism has been highlighted as a way of saving this subspecies.


Central chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes troglodytes) ©Josephine Head

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Most people know that the genus Pan is divided into two separate species: bonobos and the common chimpanzee. And some researchers believe that bonobos and common chimps diverged just under one million years ago after the formation of the Congo River divided them. However, many people do not know that genetic studies have suggested that the common chimp is further divided into four subspecies.

   Despite being the human’s closest living relatives along with the bonobo, very little is known about these four subspecies of chimpanzee. There are almost no physiological differences between them, but they can be differentiated at a cellular level and can be determined by their geographic range.

   While it has been argued that differences between chimpanzee populations are too small to warrant subspecific designations, the threats faced by chimpanzees differ across Africa, which makes a regional approach valuable for conservation purposes.

   Habitat loss and fragmentation due to deforestation pose the biggest threat to all chimps. For every 5,500 people in Africa, there is now only one chimpanzee. Africa may be one of the least densely populated continents, but it is also one of the fastest growing. As a result, Africa’s great apes are now competing for space and resources.

      The central chimpanzee is the nominate subspecies, which means that it has the same subspecies name as its species name. The scientific name for the genus is Pan while troglodytes is the name of the species and, in the case of the central chimp, troglodytes is also the name of the subspecies. This means that the central chimpanzee was the first subspecies of chimp to be described, and with between 172,700 to 299,700 individuals, it also has the highest population of the four subspecies.

   Chimpanzees live in fusion-fission societies that are lead by an alpha male. Females in estrus are guarded by dominant males, and male bonds form an important part of a chimpanzee’s social structure. Troop ties are strong and encounters with other troops do often lead to violence, infanticide and cannibalism.


The central chimp ranges over several rainforest states from south of the Sanaga River in Cameroon to the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The safest place to encounter the central chimpanzee is in the forests of Gabon along with surfing hippos, forest elephants and the illusive golden cat.

Eastern chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) ©Sean Viljoen

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While Dian Fossey was preoccupied with gorillas in the mist, Jane Goodall has a penchant for the eastern chimpanzees in Gombe National Park.

   The eastern chimpanzee has provided a basis of understanding for all chimps, and there are now between 6,400 and 9,600 left in the wild.

   Jane discovered that different chimpanzee troops have different cultures, which she was able to define by how they used tools. Certain troops used sponges made from crushed leaves for drinking, while other troops distinguished themselves by using twigs for termite fishing or rocks for smashing nuts. All these examples of behaviour illustrate their cognitive abilities.

   Wounda is a well-known chimpanzee who was found close to death in the Democratic Republic of Congo and who is further proof of the emotional and cognitive capacities of chimps. When she turned at the last moment of her release to give Dr Jane Goodall a heart-felt hug, she became an ambassador in primate conservation.

   “Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.” – Dr. Louis Leakey


The eastern chimp is found in Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, the Central African Republic and the DRC. A small population is also believed to be in Sudan.

   The best way to see Goodall’s chimp is by visiting the Mahale Mountains of Tanzania with Passage to Africa. Alternatively, you could pay a visit to Primate Lodge, an exclusive eco-lodge situated in the heart of the Kibale Forest in Uganda.

West African chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes versus) ©Christian Boix

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The recent outbreak of Ebola has killed more than 11,000 people on the bulge of Africa, but the exact effects on the west African chimpanzee, which inhabits three of the affected countries, remain to be seen. However, the virus has a mortality rate of 77% when it comes to our cousin, and it has killed a third of gorillas and chimpanzees since the 1990s.

   There are now under 56,000 west African chimpanzees left as a result of habitat loss, Ebola, and the bushmeat industry. Phillip Cronje from the Jane Goodall Institute has even noted reports of chimps being killed in Liberia out of fear of them spreading the Ebola virus, as bushmeat was oft believed to have been one of the causes of infection.

   The close relation of chimps to humans has often been to their detriment. A group of medical research chimps played a pivotal role in the discovery of a Hepatitis B vaccine, but were thereafter retired on the research islands off the African coast. They have come to be known as the Lab Apes of Liberia, and their food has to be subsidised as further funding has recently been refused. Humans and chimpanzees share the same blood types, which means that chimps have also consequently played a significant but very sad role in the development of Hepatitis B and C vaccines, as well as cures for malaria.


The population of west African chimpanzees mainly dots the forests of Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Mali, while the greatest number is thought to be found in Guinea. The subspecies is assumed to have disappeared from the wild in Gambia and Togo, and is possibly also now extinct in Benin, but it is difficult to be certain due to either a lack of research or political violence.


Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes ellioti) ©Jacques Gillon, Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center



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The Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee is the most threatened of the chimpanzee subspecies, and it has the smallest distribution as well as the smallest population. Only 6,500 now remain in the wild as a result of poaching and habitat loss. Due to the rapidly increasing human population in the region and the high degree of political instability in the surrounding states, it is believed to have experienced a significant reduction in its numbers over the last three decades.

    Nevertheless, this subspecies has made its mark in history as it was a group of chimpanzees known as the Holloman Space Chimp Colony from Cameroon that forged a route through the stars so that man could one day land on the moon.

   It was the small steps taken by HAM, the first chimpanzee in space, that made the giant leap for mankind possible. And Enos, the first chimpanzee to orbit the earth twice, also played a vital role in humanity’s triumph. However, the treatment of these chimps has been greatly disputed, and it must be acknowledged that significant advancements in the Space Race were only achieved at the expense of their wellbeing, which is arguably a matter that shouldn’t be acclaimed.


As its name dictates, this chimp is endemic to Nigeria and Cameroon and can be found on the northern side of the Sanaga River. Sadly it is now extinct across much of its former range and the best chance of seeing one is in the gallery forests of Gashaka-Gumti National Park in the Taraba State of Nigeria where up to an estimated 1,500 still survive. Small groups of this subspecies also still occur in the remaining forest fragments of south-western Nigeria and the Niger Delta. Unfortunately though, these isolated populations are at increased risk of extinction.

   Help the most endangered chimp by volunteering at the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center in Cameroon.


A baby bonobo (Pan paniscus) ©Craig R. Sholley, African Wildlife Foundation

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Bonobos are smaller and darker than chimpanzees, and often referred to as the ‘hippy ape’. They were only determined as a separate species in 1929 so there is a great deal about them that is still relatively unknown. They are, therefore, a particularly hot topic amongst scientists.

   The bonobo is ape about public displays of socio-sexual contact. Sex is utilised by all community members whether young, old, male or female. And it is not only a means of pleasure and procreation, but it is a way of creating bonds, reducing tension, reinforcing rank, greeting each other and resolving conflicts. Venus’ ape has even been recording kissing – with tongue – and is not afraid to try out different sexual positions.

   Bonobos main focuses are erotica and the female of the species. A research paper entitled Chimps are from Mars, Bonobos from Venus has even been adapted from John Gray’s bestseller, and it focuses on how strong female bonds and high-ranking females govern the bonobo’s peaceful social structure, as opposed to the Mars-like violence used by patriarchal troops of chimpanzee.

   The free-loving bonobo also extends its love to the trees, playing a vital role in the spreading of seeds in the forest, which has lead to it being classified as a keystone species. During its lifetime each bonobo will ingest and disperse nine tons of seeds from more than 91 species of rainforest plants.

   A recent breakthrough in research studies is the discovery that the bonobo uses ‘functional flexibility’ when communicating, which was initially believed to be a distinctly Homo sapien characteristic.

   The current bonobo population is estimated to be between 30,000 and 50,000. It is classified as endangered, and its major threats include poaching for bushmeat, civil war remnants, human population growth and movement, and habitat loss due to logging and agriculture.


Wild bonobos call the forests south of the Congo River home, and it is this dangerous address that has deterred many visitors. However, you can visit rescued bonobos at Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


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