The Chimpanzees of Gabon (Part II): It’s “Howdy” Time

By Candace Sclimenti

Chimps in Gabon choose to stay inside to avoid the rain (Photo by L.A. Zoo Animal Keeper Candace Sclimenti)

Chimps choose to stay inside to avoid the rain

Los Angeles Zoo Senior Animal Keeper Candace Sclimenti set off to Africa for four weeks, beginning in January 2016, to consult with staff at the International Center for Medical Research in Franceville, Gabon (CIRMF). The lab at this facility phased out its medical research work with chimpanzees 15 years ago, leaving some 40-plus resident chimps in need of a new home and life. With no sanctuary in place to send them, the primates, who are by nature a social species, have lived and been cared for at the Gabon facility pending their relocation. Sclimenti traveled more than 8,000 miles to lend her expertise and experience in the process of introducing these chimps to their new, large social groups, before they are moved to sanctuaries on island habitats in Gabon. A primatologist, steering committee member for the Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan, and long-time collaborator of the Jane Goodall Institute, Sclimenti often consults on chimpanzee behavior, specific to socialization and integration, making her an expert contributor for this project. This is her story from the field.

It’s “Howdy” Time

Week two was exciting and busy here at the Centre International de Recherches de Medicales de Franceville, Gabon (CIRMF), with chimpanzee moves, introductions, and an emergency surgery on one of the mandrills. By week’s end, we had formed a group of seven and another group of ten. So far, we have introduced 36 chimpanzees and now have five separate groups. Our goal is to have three or four groups.

Queen Clara at the Centre International de Recherches de Medicales de Franceville, Gabon (Photo by L.A. Zoo Animal Keeper Candace Sclimenti)

Queen Clara

Clara and Mayumba are mature, confident females, with laid-back attitudes. They have quickly become two of my favorites; although I have so many “favorites” now I can’t possibly decide! Both were moved next to a group of four chimpanzees, consisting of one juvenile male and three females, so they could howdy. “Howdy” is the process in which individuals can acclimate to one another through visual and limited physical contact, via protective barriers, without occupying the same space—a “getting to know each other” period before physically putting them together.

When we put these two groups together after a couple days of howdying, Clara and Mayumba were just amazing with the little group of four. Dadoiine, an adult female, was nervous and seemed to want to be dominant over the newly formed group. Initially, she caused some trouble by displaying (using body language to communicate emotions) and stirring up the group. She soon learned that Clara was to be “Queen Bee.”

Dadoiine is a smart chimpanzee and quickly allied herself with Clara, not leaving her side the rest of the day. The other younger females, Daroiine and Maggie (two more of my favorites), are sweet and playful. Daroiine just wanted to play with both Clara and Mayumba. While Clara was busy with Dadoiine, Mayumba warmed to Daroiine and began to play with her, tickling her feet. Maggie stayed out of it for a while, but within the first hour of being together, Mayumba went up to Maggie and gently wrapped her arm around Maggie’s waist to hug her. Maggie then leaned her head onto Mayumba’s chest.

While the females were bonding, poor Noiro, the young male, just didn’t know what to do. Inexperienced and insecure, he nervously screamed and cried and ran around the enclosure displaying. But Clara and Mayumba, though strong and confident, were non-threatening and patient with him. They gave him time to calm himself and settle down. By the evening, the group was relaxed and nesting—a characteristic of great apes that build beds, or nests, made of branches and leaves—together, with Queen Clara and her little princesses (and Noiro, too).

During moments like these, we must remember things have to keep moving forward as there is much to do in a short period of time. Two days later, we moved an adult male, Marco, next to the newly formed group of six so he could howdy with them. The next day, we completely rocked poor Noiro’s world by adding Marco to his (actually Clara’s) group. Noiro was a nervous wreck, screaming and displaying. Clara and Mayumba were calm and relaxed, while the other three females cautiously greeted Marco. Dadoiine mimicked the behavior she’d had with Clara, following Marco around all day, refusing to leave his side. As Noiro displayed and charged around the enclosure, Marco remained calm, but alert. Marco defended himself whenever Noiro ran by and hit him, but he refused to engage in Noiro’s antics. Slowly, Noiro settled down, and during the heat of the afternoon, Noiro and Marco were sleeping near each other.

Chimpanzee Brigitte at the Centre International de Recherches de Medicales de Franceville, Gabon (Photo by L.A. Zoo Animal Keeper Candace Sclimenti)

Brigitte

Around noon the same day, a sick mandrill was brought to the hospital and had to undergo emergency surgery. Upon initial examination, it was thought that she had a twisted intestine. Once they opened her up, they discovered the problem was in the stomach. Her stomach was compacted with undigested food and loaded with roundworms. It took more than two hours for Doctors Michel and Bart to clean out her stomach, removing all the food and worms. Although disgusting, it was fascinating to watch, and I’m happy to say that the little mandrill is doing well!

The day before all of this, we created a group of ten chimpanzees, which included five adult males, four of whom are rather dominant and rough. Although there was LOTS of screaming and displaying and the scene was chaotic, amazingly none were wounded. One of the females in this group, Brigitte, decided to stay away from all the drama and took her food outside, parking herself in a doorway where she could watch the activity taking place inside. Later on, when the situation had calmed, we all joked that Brigitte was enjoying the “show”—the chimpanzee version of dinner theater.

Brigitte is quite a character. She is friendly and enjoys interacting with people. She asks for scratches and along with her buddy, a sweet male named Aryton, enjoys getting “groomed” by me and Lee Ann—my colleague from Lowry Park Zoo. (Can you tell Brigitte and Aryton are two more of my favorites?)

For now, we’re observing our newly formed groups as they bond and determine their hierarchy. Our plan for next week is to continue growing the groups for eventual introduction onto one of the larger islands. We’ve decided to leave Clara’s group at seven. Queen Clara and her court will reside on one of the smaller islands. As there are many good surrogate mother candidates in this group, orphans arriving to the sanctuary will have a home in Clara’s kingdom.

Like I said, it’s been a busy week.

Au revoir,
Candace

All photos, by L.A. Zoo Senior Animal Keeper Candace Sclimenti

Read more on Candace Sclimenti’s work in Gabon:

Chimpanzees of Gabon (Part I): A Friendly “Bonjour!”