Western chimpanzee juvenile female Joya, 6 years old, using rocks as tools to crack open oil palm nuts in Bossou Forest, Mont Nimba, Guinea in December of 2010. Anup Shah / Stone / Getty Images
The United Nations famously protects cultural heritage sites, but for the first time it has recognized the unique culture of animals.
At the 13th Conference of Parties (CoP) to the United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP) Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), which took place recently in India, the conference attendees agreed to protect the ability of West African chimpanzees to crack nuts, according to Down to Earth magazine.
The CMS recognized the unique learned ability of chimpanzees to use stone hammers and bits of wood to crack nuts, making this the first time, it seems, that one species has formally recognized the value of another’s learned customs, according to The Times of London.
The proposal recognized that there are 39 cultural variations that are recognized in chimpanzees across various regions of Africa, but it said, “[a]mong these, the clearest instance was nut-cracking, common in the West, yet absent elsewhere despite the availability of the necessary raw materials.”
The CMS is looking to create something similar to a cultural heritage site, where chimpanzee nut-cracking is protected. The CMS said it highlights the chimpanzees’ “unique technological culture,” as CNN reported.
The ability to use stone and wood as a hammer and anvil is only observed in chimpanzees in West Africa. The CMS said that chimps in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Ivory Coast have the ability, but those in other parts of Africa do not, according to CNN.
“In different parts of western Africa, scientists noted that chimpanzees interacted with each other and used tools, so their behaviors are different from other animals. It becomes apparent when you watch them for a while,” said Ian Redmond, a CMS tropical field biologist and conservationist, to Down to Earth. “You can tell where a chimpanzee is from by looking at its behavior in a way similar to when you recognize which tribe a human comes from through her clothes, dancing and mannerisms.”
The need to protect chimpanzees is particularly pronounced now that their habitat is rapidly changing due to the climate crisis and industrial nut farming.
“[We] must expect [nut cracking culture] to suffer a high degree of threat, a situation that is reminiscent of cultural extinctions among humans, such as of relatively rare local languages and other customs,” the CMS wrote in its proposal. “Alternatively, such behavioral plasticity could enhance survival prospects of chimpanzees in marginal habitat or subject to climate-induced changes to vegetation.”
Ian Redmond also touted the unique ability to crack nuts as fundamental to survival during the climate crisis. Recognizing that ability and protecting it is a novel method of conservation. He told Down to Earth, “The ability to crack nuts means chimpanzees can survive in forests which in dry seasons don’t have much other food. So it becomes a survival skill. Because of climate change, there are longer dry seasons. So these chimpanzees have a better chance of survival. We need to know which tribes behave like this. It is also an issue of competition. If local human communities harvest the same nuts or fell trees for timber, we lose chimpanzee culture. So it becomes a novel criterion for conservation.”
The CMS also noted that the primitive tools of the chimpanzees provide a window into our own evolution. The CMS wrote in its proposal:
“Moreover, the culture of nut-cracking merits conservation for reasons beyond that focused only on the species and the activity itself. One major value is that it shares many features with percussive stone tool making that occupied over three million years of hominin evolution, and it has accordingly offered insights into potential evolutionary foundations of this aspect of our human past.”
Redmond also noted to Down to Earth that recognizing a learned, cultural behavior will change conservation moving forward, since the skills the elderly chimps teach the younger ones are critical to the survival of the culture.
“So, one potential conservation implication might be that in populations of species that have cultural knowledge, you actually want to target your conservation actions at elders, contrary to usual practice which suggests that post-reproductive animals are not useful anymore,” he said.