Unfortunately there isn’t much thought given to the slow but inexorable disappearance of chimpanzees. Is it because they are too far from Europe? It might be because so many animal species are disappearing and therefore there is a certain ‘numbness’ about the chimpanzee crisis. If that is true, we do not have much hope. Everyone is complicit, in part even the writer who could have done more. Television floods us with reports on the animal world, from ants to elephants that inculcate us with the idea of an idyllic world, full of life, hope and almost Franciscan bliss. But if we believe the numbers, even lions in Africa, ‘The King of the Jungle’, are slowly disappearing, not to mention elephants and many species of monkeys, we cannot rest easy. Among the last animals, chimpanzees are in really bad shape. At the beginning of the twentieth century there were millions of chimpanzees in Africa. They are now reduced to a few thousand units. A very small number if we consider that the conditions in which those who have remained live are getting worse every day.

The causes until recently were due to the destruction of their natural environment by man, deforestation and poaching, now they are also those of the extraction of precious minerals, gold, silver, coltan, manganese, etc., which are found in their natural territories.

On the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, we are witnessing one of the most serious natural disasters ever recorded in our history, in the full indifference of the whole world: 6 million deaths in recent decades, exploitation of local populations in mines and mercenaries who do as they wish. There is still a dictator in Uganda, Yoweri K. Museveni, who loves to go around the country with a Texan hat on his head, that has been in power since 1986, so for more than 35 years and is, therefore, one of the longest dictators in the world ever. Idi Amin, ousted by Museweni, with a coup d'état, by comparison, was an innocent. But no one wants to admit it. However, this situation is good for Europe and for the powers of the economic, financial and warlords doing business with this country.

This year, however, one thing has drawn attention, especially in Europe, to this area, namely the murder of the Italian Ambassador Luca Attanasio and two of his companions, at the hands of guerrillas, who have not been identified yet but who serve the interests of multinationals that exploit this area of Africa without regard, inhumanely and in spite of international rights.

The dwarf chimpanzee (Pan paniscus) lives not far from this area, but with great difficulty. For the other chimpanzee, the common one (Pan troglodytes) who lives in other places in Uganda and other African countries, it is no better. But the dangers for these animals, unfortunately, do not end there. Today there is also a danger for them of the spread of some deadly diseases that men transmit to them, to think that until yesterday it was a man who accused them of transmitting Ebola and AIDS to us, some also insinuated Covid-19.

A mysterious disease

Common chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) also live on the west coast of Africa. They are found in several countries, for example, Senegal, Cameroon, Liberia and Sierra Leone, but it is the latter country that we want to talk about at the moment. In Sierra Leone, chimpanzees still living in the wild in forests have all but disappeared. There are many factors, not the least of which was a civil war that tore the country apart from 1991 to 2002 with the complicity of many European countries, the United Nations, the World Bank and multinational mining companies, especially of diamond miners who sold the diamonds worn by wealthy Western women and beyond, who have never asked where those blood jewels came from.

In Sierra Leone, thanks to some private organizations, such as the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance, "Santuary" areas have been set-up to retain chimpanzees and prevent them from ending up in the hands of unscrupulous poachers or in the pans of a people that are still dying of hunger and disease, precisely the diseases that seem to have been transmitted to chimpanzees. Some scientific evidence emerged from a 2016 survey conducted in one of these places, when a researcher, Tony Goldberg (Wisconsin University, Madison), posted the question of why there are so many mysterious deaths among chimpanzees kept at the Tacugama Sanctuary. This is a protected place where chimpanzees are still duly fed, cared for by veterinary experts, thanks also to donations that come from all over the world. It was a disease that had never been found elsewhere and had severe degenerations that proliferated mainly in the brain, accompanied by severe abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea and alterations of walking that in chimpanzees is vital and then led them inexorably to death.

The guests of the Tacugama Sanctuary are mostly young chimpanzees whose parents were killed by poachers or chimpanzees confiscated from shady characters who kept them in the house as if they were pets. This in Africa, unfortunately, is a very widespread custom, especially by the rich people to show off their high social position. I witnessed a similar spectacle in another African country, Gabon, but this time the victims were not chimpanzees, but a small gorilla. I met a man showing off a gorilla’s hand used as an ashtray in his house!

Returning to the epidemic among the chimpanzees of Tacugama Sanctuary and considering that more than 60% of this population was affected, an attempt was soon made to understand its causes. The disease could spread among chimpanzees still free or among those living in other sanctuaries and other parts of West Africa. From Tony Goldberg's team, an in-depth analyses of the blood and other tissues of contaminated subjects compared with uncontaminated ones have been carried out. The results showed that the epidemic was due to the spread of a new species of bacterium of the genus Sarcina (Family Micrococcacee), which was baptized precisely, with the name of Sarcina troglodytae. The research is still ongoing and it is therefore difficult to draw conclusions, but it cannot be excluded that this disease has passed from man to these animals. Treatment with antibiotics did not solve the problem, it only slowed it down. To prevent the disease from spreading, healthy individuals were placed in isolation in small cages where they felt very afflicted and frustrated. Keeping chimpanzees in cages is a crime and only in these cases can this treatment be justified, that is, for their health, not for anything else. What is hoped is that the disease will sooner or later be eradicated and that the chimpanzees of Tacugama can return to health and that all other African chimpanzees can live long healthy lives without being persecuted by humans. The problem with Tacugama, but also with other sanctuaries in Africa, is that some local political authorities do not like to see researchers and veterinarians around mainly from Europe or America, when these people are there to save their animals: a kind of counter racism which is quite wide spread in Africa.

Mourning among the chimpanzees of Tacugama Sanctuary

During this tragedy in Tacugama Sanctuary the subjects who died were taken by the janitors, put in a wheel barrow and taken out of the enclosures to be buried in a distant location. It was an operation that was done even before the epidemic with subjects who died from other diseases or for other reasons. Everything was normal, but more than once very unique behaviors were observed among chimpanzees. During the transport of the corpses, the chimpanzees that were still alive and inside the fence made of a metal mesh and that therefore allowed a complete view of what was going on remained in a silence full of respect in front of the corpses of their companions, almost in a religious silence: a deep sadness could be read in their disconsolate eyes. These chimpanzees showed, what we men call, a sense of mourning. In a country like Sierra Leone, which until recently had millions of deaths caused by the civil war, chimpanzees have been shown to be more sensitive than 'humans' to death than their closest relatives, namely men.

Recommended readings

Roth, P. 2002. The dying animal. Vintage Books, New York.
Goldberg, T. & J.A. Patz, 2015. The need for a global health ethic. Lancet, 386: 37-39.
Tartabini, A. 2017. Il senso del distacco negli animali: l’esempio delle scimmie. In: Il senso della morte negli animali (a cura di R. Caccavari), Toriazzi Editore, Parma, pp.: 11-28.
Owens, L.A. et al. 2021. A Sarcina bacterium linked to lethal disease in sanctuary chimpanzees in Sierra Leone. Nature Communications, 12(763).
Tartabini, A. Pensiero animale. Orme Editori, Rome (in the process of printing).