Cultural kinship between humans and apes recorded by research team

Thursday August 02 2018

Uganda’s most famous alpha male chimpanzee Zakayo, eating a piece of cake on his 44th birthday at Uganda Wildlife Education Centre in Entebbe, in 2008. FILE PHOTO | REUTERS


Chimpanzees, among the Banyoro and the Bakonzo in western Uganda, are either “people who ran away from the community” or “wild people” or “our brothers or sisters” or “relatives who should be respected,” according to a new study.

The report titled “Culture and the conservation of the great apes in Uganda (2018)” released by the Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda (CCFU) adds that although many of the large forests have today been gazetted as forest reserves or national parks, neighbouring communities still express their attachment to these natural landscapes.

The study indicates that the great apes’ habitat — land and natural resources — are not only prized for their economic value, but also their cultural and spiritual significance of providing the community with a sense of identity and belonging.

Respondents say that the hunters refrain from hunting certain animals; the chimpanzee is one of these because of its likeness to humans.

Respondents claimed that if hunters found a chimpanzee trapped in a snare set for smaller animals, they would open the trap and free it.

Teaching them early


The Batangyi (of the Bakonzo ethnic group) and Bayanja (of the Banyoro) communities identify culturally with the chimpanzee as a totem and are guided by taboos and principles against harming it.

In both communities, the chimpanzee is recognised as intelligent, as illustrated by its ability to use tools and make its own bed (nest) every night.

Adults teach children not to hurt or abuse the chimpanzee, which is referred to as “grandfather” or “owner of the forest” — note that it is never called a chimpanzee.

In both clans, parents and grandparents teach their children about culture (lineage, clan, totem, norms, taboos, how to greet clanmates and conduct themselves).

From as early as six years, a child learns to identify his or her totem (the chimpanzee), and taboos associated with it.

“These existing cultural resources in the form of identity, as well as cultural values and structures, could therefore contribute to raising awareness about the importance of conserving the chimpanzee both in and outside clans that have the chimpanzee as a totem,” says the report, released in Kampala on July 12.

In 2014, the Arcus Foundation commissioned CCFU to identify opportunities for strengthening the conservation and social outcomes of its programmes by applying a “cultural values approach” to the conservation of the great apes.

The study sought to identify cultural values, principles and conservation mechanisms associated with the conservation of the great apes (especially chimpanzees) and their natural environment in Uganda.

Research was initially carried out in the Rwenzori, Kigezi, Tooro and Bunyoro regions.

As it was found that none of the communities there claimed any cultural association with the mountain gorilla, the existence of a cultural association with chimpanzees subsequently informed the selection of the research locations and communities.

Cultural association

The report focuses mainly on the two communities where such a cultural association was evident: The Bakonzo, who are mainly found in the Rwenzori region, and the Banyoro, one of the largest ethnic groups in Uganda, occupying forested areas in midwestern Uganda.

This study also revealed the existence of cultural practices associated with traditional medicine and healing using chimpanzee body parts.

According to elders in Bunyoro, the use of animal parts for traditional medicine is mainly due to the influence of Congolese migrants.

Cultural resources in the form of identity, as well as cultural values and structures, can contribute to raising awareness on the importance of conserving the chimpanzee, both within and outside clans that have the ape as a totem.

The report suggests that cultural practices that impact negatively on the conservation of the chimpanzee, especially with regard to traditional medicine and related spiritual beliefs need to be addressed.

Other human activities have adversely affected conservation.

In Bunyoro, for instance, migrant communities and large-scale investments have led to deforestation, diminishing the forest cover and chimpanzee habitat.

But, while the erosion of culture, with the influence of religion, education and migrant communities, has weakened it in some respects, cultural identity remains an important aspect of both communities linked to their social organisation and relationships in and outside the clan.