Chimpanzee Facts

  • chimpanzee at Sweetwaters
  • chimpanzee at Sweetwaters

Scientific Name: Pan troglodytes
Class: Mammalia
Order: Primates
Family: Pongidae (great apes)
Distribution: East, West and Central Africa

Chimpanzees are highly intelligent animals who share 98.6% of their genetic DNA with humans. They make use of tools such as rocks to crack nuts in half or sticks inserted into mounds to ‘fish’ for termites, and are the only primates to have developed tool use to such an advanced level.

Size and Appearance: Chimpanzees are part of the great ape family along with orangutans, gorillas and bonobos. The males, at over a metre tall and weighing between 35 and 70 kilograms, are larger and stronger than the females. Chimpanzees have long arms for climbing and nimble hands and feet with opposable thumbs to grasp objects and branches.

  • chimpanzee at Sweetwaters
  • chimpanzee at Sweetwaters
  • captive chimpanzee

Sociability: Chimpanzees are extremely sociable animals, living in complex communities of between 15 and 100 animals. The groups are led by dominant males called the “alpha” male, who establish a hierarchy based on physical strength, age and intelligence, although friendships and personality are also extremely important. Chimpanzees spend hours grooming each other. At dusk, wild chimpanzees build nests 6-25 meters above ground (by pulling over branches to make a soft bed).

Habitat: Chimpanzees live in a wide variety of habitats ranging from humid evergreen forests through to mosaic woodlands and deciduous forests to dry Savannah woodlands.

Diet: Chimpanzees are able to climb and reach a variety of foods including ripe fruits, young leaves, seeds, bark, flowers and sometimes insects, eggs and nestlings. Occasionally they will kill and eat small mammals like monkeys and antelopes, hunting them in groups. They feed mostly in the morning and evening and rest during the heat of the day.

Life Expectancy and Reproduction: The life expectancy for a chimpanzee is between 40 and 50 years in the wild and around 60 years in captivity. Female chimpanzees become sexually active in captivity from 8-9 years of age. On average, chimpanzees in the wild have their first babies when they are approximately 11-12 years of age. Males become fertile when they are approximately 10 years of age in the wild and earlier in captivity. The gestation period is 7 ½ - 8 months and chimpanzee’s labour normally lasts only 40 minutes. The average time between babies is approximately 3-5 years. For the first six months of life offspring are in constant contact with their mother. For the first four months, the juveniles will suckle approximately every three hours. Independent travel and weaning occur at about five years of age. Solid food consumption starts from 4-6 months of age and increases as the suckling reduces.

Range of the Chimpanzee: Chimpanzees are the most widespread of all the great apes and live in Savannah grasslands and forests throughout East, West and Central Africa. Habitat destruction and over-exploitation, however, has reduced their distribution in many countries.

Diseases: Chimpanzees are susceptible to many human diseases like measles, influenza, hepatitis B, polio, ringworm and cold sores. They may also suffer from giardia, amoebic dysentery and hookworms.

Conservation Status and Threats to Chimpanzees: There are thought to be about 175,000 chimpanzees remaining in the wild. Even though this sounds like a large number, many of these animals live in fragmented remnant populations that are separated from other chimpanzees by areas that are heavily cultivated. The chimpanzee is officially classified as an endangered species and protected by international law under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Habitat loss and commercial hunting for bushmeat has become the most significant immediate threat to the future of chimpanzees in the wild. The demand from consumers in wealthy countries for tropical hardwoods means the west and central African forest habitat, that is home to wild chimpanzees is being destroyed at an alarming rate. As part of the process of forest destruction, all wild animals living within the forests are hunted to supply the illegal bushmeat trade. Often whole chimpanzee families are butchered, leaving behind infants that are later exported to zoos and medical institutions or sold as exotic pets. Heavily traumatized, these infants are occasionally intercepted in transit by government authorities, whereupon sanctuaries such as Sweetwaters are called upon to provide refuge. It is estimated that only one in four chimpanzees survive being taken from the wild as most die from disease, malnutrition and dehydration.

chimpanzee at Sweetwaters
Photo credits: Drew Fellman, Karl Amman, Charlie Grieves-Cook (x2), Teeku Patel /