CMS Concerted Action on Chimpanzee Culture Approved Featured

21 February 2020 Successes


BBC Wildlife

Animal culture, the learning of non-human species through socially transmitted behaviours, is being linked to conservation action for the first time at the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) Conference of the Parties (COP13) which is taking place this week in India.

The target populations for this proposal were a subset of the Western Chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes verus, which are defined by their unique technological culture of cracking open nuts through the use of natural stone and wooden hammer and anvil materials.

This CMS Concerted Action is set to to bring additional resources, public support and political will to help implement the recommendations of the IUCN Regional Action Plan for the Conservation of Western Chimpanzees between 2020 and 2030. This will be further enhanced by greater collaborative action between the Range States. 

A chimpanzee showing the nut-cracking behaviour to an infant. Photography: Prof Tetsuro Matsuzawa, Primate Research Institute, Kyoto, via Prof Andy Whiten. 

The remarkable nut-cracking behaviour in the Western Chimpanzee only occurs in the most westerly parts of their range spanning Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire, and has not been observed in other populations across Africa even when the necessary raw materials are available. Baby chimpanzees taken to sanctuaries do not exhibit this behaviour without being taught, suggesting that it is not a genetic difference that makes these populations exhibit the nut cracking behaviour.

There is evidence that in at least part of their range, this cultural capacity is what enables them to successfully live through dry seasons in the forests where they live. Such behaviour could enhance survival prospects of chimpanzees in areas showing climate induced changes to vegetation. This is important because P. t. verus is classed as Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List.


Delegates at CMS COP13, including Ape Alliance Chairman Ian Redmond OBE (right). 

Human activities that disrupt the social fabric of culturally developed species can have severe impacts. Once a species has vanished from an area, critical knowledge can be also be lost. For example, the Southern Right Whales’ knowledge of migration routes around New Zealand's coastline was lost to the species as a result of commercial whaling in the 1800s. Supporting individuals that act as ‘repositories’ of social knowledge such as elephant matriarchs, or groups of knowledgeable elders, may be just as important as conserving critical habitat.

One of the most important implications of the concerted action proposal will be the recognition of populations defined culturally rather than genetically as units worthy of conservation. This means it can act as a “flagship” instance of conservation focused on a cultural entity and so show how this can enhance and complement the conventional species or other taxon-based effort.


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