Tracking Wild Chimpanzees

See Chimpanzees

While Alex's research is focused outside protected areas, national parks offer the best opportunities to view chimpanzees.

Candid Camera

Watch this curious chimpanzee's reaction to researcher Alex Piel's camera trap.


“Together and with your support, we can help these remarkable apes remain resilient and even prosper.”         —Alex Piel, Ugalla Primate Project

By Alex Piel

Like many young people, my wife, Fiona, and I assumed early on that working with animals meant a job either in a zoo or veterinary clinic. But our university experiences steered us toward field research and eventually to Senegal where we caught the savanna chimpanzee bug.

Why Chimpanzees?

We were first inspired by their ability to adapt to extreme conditions. Chimpanzees shelter in caves to escape Senegal’s soaring daytime temperatures and use sharpened sticks akin to spears to hunt nocturnal bushbabies.

As our closest living relatives, these charismatic and diverse primates hold a key to our understanding of human evolution.

We are also conservationists as well as scientists. In collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, Frankfurt Zoological Society and Jane Goodall Institute, we are focused on protecting the integrity of chimpanzee populations and their habitat in Tanzania.

To inform these efforts, we have sought to identify where chimpanzees live, how they move and what threatens them across the Greater Mahale Ecosystem.

Deploying Technology to Overcome Challenges

In the dry season, rivers dwindle and water scarcity becomes a problem. In the wet season, torrential rains damage equipment, soak tents, ruin food, flood rivers and wash out roads.

Before we can study chimpanzees, we first have to access inaccessible areas. Increasingly, though, we’re using technology to overcome some of these challenges — to be our extra eyes and ears.

We experimented with using remote-controlled planes to record major land changes, although the results weren't as productive as we'd hoped. We enjoyed greater success deploying camera traps and solar-powered acoustic transmission units (or SPATUs) that record forest sounds and immediately transmit them to a central laptop (watch Alex's video clips).

Preliminary Findings

So what have we learned? Chimpanzees remain remarkably resilient.

Almost the entire Greater Mahale is free of Simian Immunodeficiency Virus. This precursor to human HIV has infected two other populations in western Tanzania. While these apes face one less threat, the virus’ absence may indicate more fragmented populations.

We’ve also been encouraged by TNC and our other partners’ success in facilitating the Tanzanian government’s progress toward conserving chimpanzees.

Some 75 percent of Tanzania’s chimpanzees live outside of protected areas. So it’s critical for all levels of government, communities, conservation organizations and researchers to coordinate our actions and combine our resources.

Together, and with your support, we can help these remarkable apes remain resilient and even prosper.


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