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Lost Apes of the Congo - TIME

Lost Apes of the Congo - TIME

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Published by José Pedro Gomes
Bili Ape, also Bondo Mystery Ape, is the name given to a large chimpanzee that inhabits Bili Forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

"The apes nest on the ground like gorillas but have a diet and features characteristic of chimpanzees," according to a National Geographic report. While preliminary genetic testing with non-nuclear DNA indicate a close relationship with the Eastern Chimpanzee Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii subspecies of the Common Chimpanzee, a range of behaviors that are more closely related to those of gorillas have greatly intrigued primatologists from around the globe. Though their taxonomic classification has been clarified, the need for further information about these chimpanzees persists.
Bili Ape, also Bondo Mystery Ape, is the name given to a large chimpanzee that inhabits Bili Forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

"The apes nest on the ground like gorillas but have a diet and features characteristic of chimpanzees," according to a National Geographic report. While preliminary genetic testing with non-nuclear DNA indicate a close relationship with the Eastern Chimpanzee Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii subspecies of the Common Chimpanzee, a range of behaviors that are more closely related to those of gorillas have greatly intrigued primatologists from around the globe. Though their taxonomic classification has been clarified, the need for further information about these chimpanzees persists.

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Published by: José Pedro Gomes on Apr 24, 2011
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04/24/2011

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Sunday, Jan. 09, 2005By Stephan Faris
Ron Pintier was flying light and low above the northern wilds of the Democratic Republic of Congo whenhe saw a dark shape racing between two patches of tropical forest. "It was huge," says Pontier, amissionary pilot. "It was black. The skin was kind of bouncing up and down on it." From its bulk andcolor, Pontier thought it was a buffalo until he circled down for another look. "I saw it again just before it went into the forest," he says. "It was an ape--and a big one." Not buffalo size, but big. What Pontier saw was a piece of a primatological puzzle, another splinter of anecdotal evidence for amysterious ape with characteristics of gorillas and chimpanzees, an animal that has scientists in afurious debate over what it might be.Bili lies in Congo's far north, about 120 miles east of the Ebola River, where deep tropical forest breaksup into patches of savanna. Civil war and neglect have left the region nearly untouched by man.Overgrown dirt roads with bridges of rough-hewn logs string together thatched-roofed villages. Nearly all freight is carried in by bicycle. Locals hunt with homemade shotguns and crossbows seemingly modeled on 16th century Portuguese design. "This area is the last part of Africa where there are still wildanimals," says Pontier, who grew up in the region. "It's not a game park. It's not a reserve. The animalsare really wild." When Karl Ammann, a Swiss photographer crusading against the killing of wild animals for meat, first visited the region in 1996, he was looking for gorillas, hoping that the great apes still roamed its jungles. What he found surprised him. Locals had two names for the apes in their forests: the tree beaters, whichstayed safe in the branches, and the lion killers, bigger, darker and so strong that they were unaffected by the poison arrows used by local hunters. Ammann discovered a strange skull with the dimensions of a chimpanzee's but with an odd, prominentcrest like a gorilla's. Motion-detecting cameras in the forest caught what looked like immensechimpanzees, and a photograph purchased from poachers showed hunters posing with an animal
Lost Apes Of The Congo -- Printout -- TIMEhttp://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1015856,00.html1 de 324-04-2011 13:43
 
estimated to be twice the size of an ordinary chimp. Ammann measured a fecal dropping three times as big as chimp dung and footprints as large as or larger than a gorilla's.Most intriguing were the gorilla-like ground nests found in the riverine swamps. Chimps normally maketheir nests in the high safety of trees. Why would they build their beds of branches and shoots on theground? And why here, of all places? At night Cleve Hicks, 32, a Ph.D. student who observes theanimals, regularly hears the laughs of hyenas and the guttural cries of leopards. Recently, his trackersfilmed the footprints of a lion crossing a river. But the apes here--at least some of them--pulled together branches and shoots to make a bed on the ground. "We know [the apes] are a perfect target forleopards," says Hicks. "So how can they get away with that?"The first scientist to see the Bili apes was Shelly Williams, an independent primatologist who visited theregion at Ammann's invitation in the summers of 2002 and 2003. She says she documented separategroups of East and West African chimpanzee subspecies and what she calls the "mystery ape." The largeranimal had a much flatter face and straight-across brow like gorillas and turned gray early in life.Females lacked chimps' genital swelling. Two or three would nest on the ground, with others low innearby branches. They made a distinct vocalization like a howl and were louder when the full moon roseand set. "The unique characteristics they exhibit just don't fit into the other groups of great apes," says Williams. The apes, she argues, could be a new species unknown to science, a new subspecies of chimpanzee or a hybrid of the gorilla and the chimp. "At the very least, we have a unique, isolated chimpculture that's unlike any that's been studied," she says.That last, least dramatic theory is the one preferred by most scientists who have visited the region,including Harvard ape expert Richard Wrangham, who thinks the ground nests are built by chimpslooking to escape dampness during the day. When Hicks and Ammann describe the animal they arestudying, they use "mystery ape" only with irony. Ammann is worried that Williams' sensationalpronouncements have brought ridicule to his project. "If there's scientific data, that's one thing," he says."But basing all of this on anecdotal stuff ..." Recently, he was emailed pictures of a chimp with apug-dog's head and a seal sprouting a gorilla's face. "Clearly, someone thinks we're a joke," he says. Ananalysis of hairs found in the ground nests identified their mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) as East Africanchimpanzee. Williams counters that finding with three arguments: the DNA could have beencontaminated, the use of human genetic markers might mask hidden differences, and mtDNA would notshow variation in the paternal line. "Until we know the father's lineage, we can't say if it's a new speciesor not," Williams insists. No longer welcome in Ammann's camp, she says she will return to the area inMarch to set up her own project."I think people are going to be disappointed with the yeti in the forest," warns Hicks, who says the apeshe has seen are clearly chimps, although some are strangely oversize. "The evidence doesn't point to [anew species]. I think what needs to be focused on is the cultural differences." In addition to buildingground nests, the apes fish for ants with tools that are several times longer than those used by knownchimp populations. For now, Hicks is concentrating on habituating the animals, getting them
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