Why this baby chimpanzee is a symbol of hope for his entire species

The population of the world’s rarest chimpanzees just got an itty bitty boost with the birth of a new baby boy.

Baby boy born at a British zoo is one of the world's rarest chimpanzees

A small baby chimp appears to smile as it clings to an older relative.

As It Happens6:34Why this baby chimpanzee is a symbol of hope for his entire species

The world's rarest chimpanzee population just got an itty-bitty boost with the birth of a new baby boy.

Chester Zoo in Upton-by-Chester, England, is introducing one of its newest residents to the public — a Western chimpanzee born on Dec. 9.

He doesn't yet have a name, but the month-old primate and his mom are both doing "really, really well," said Mike Jordan, the zoo's director of animals and plants.

"It's obviously an exciting time, not just for us working here at Chester Zoo in the U.K., but also for the chimps," Jordan told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

"The birth of a new chimp into the group brings real excitement, and the chimpanzee group's really energized."

Critically endangered

The birth isn't just welcome news for the zoo's 22 chimps and their caretakers, according to Jordan. It's also good news for the future of the species.

"The real significance is that Western chimpanzees are the scarcest, the most threatened of the four different types of chimpanzee," he said.

A young chimpanzee balances between two cords with a tiny baby chimp wrapped around its belly.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the species as critically endangered — the last stage before extinct in the wild, and finally, fully extinct.

They are native to West Africa, where they face serious threats from climate change, poaching, and loss of habitat from human activity such as logging and mining.

Already, according to the IUCN, they are "almost certainly extinct" in Benin, Burkina Faso and Togo.

The IUCN estimates their population as somewhere between 18,000 and 65,000 as of its last assessment in 2016. And Jordan says their numbers have declined by more than 80 per cent in the last 25 years.

"So the breeding group that we keep at Chester Zoo and other sort of like-minded conservation zoos really are important to safeguarding the future of them on this planet," Jordan said.

Born to — some day — be wild

Chester Zoo has had good luck breeding the chimpanzees, with four babies born over the last five years.

Asked how another chimpanzee in born into captivity helps the population in the wild, Jordan says the Chester Zoo group is something of a safety net for the rapidly declining wild population.

The zoo, he says, operates on a principle of conservation. In addition to breeding the chimps in captivity, they also run conservation programs with the wild chimps in Nigeria and Gabon.

A large chimpanzee walks through the grass while clutching a small baby chimp to her chest.

Should conditions on the ground improve for Western chimpanzees, the zoo staff will work towards re-wilding their animals — as they did in 2019 when they relocated five black rhinos to a national park in Rwanda.

That's why, he says, the zoo works to maintain an environment for the chimps that's as close to their natural habitat as possible, and gives them the space and independence to maintain their natural social structures.

"Our mission is preventing extinction," Jordan said. "One day they could well be the future of Western chimpanzees."

A tiny rock star

So far, the little fella doesn't have a name.

"We often give the [zoo] teams the pleasure of naming babies with our chimps," Jordan said. "We're eagerly awaiting the team to come back and tell us what they've chosen."

The zoo has a tradition of naming the chimpanzees after rock and pop stars. The newborn's mother is ZeeZee, named after Z.Z. Top. His sisters are Stevie, after Stevie Nicks; Annie, for Annie Lennox; and Toyah after Toyah Willcox.

Stevie, the oldest of the bunch, has already picked up babysitting duties.

A small chimpanzee climbs netted rope attached to a tree while a baby chimp clings to her belly.

The baby's a bit too young to have developed a clear personality yet, says Jordan. But he says young male chimps tend to be "very boisterous," and he suspects the little guy will prove quite a handful for his mother and three older sisters.

"Give it eight months … [and] I suspect he'll be quite bossy and quite domineering with three young girls." Though he admits that Stevie, who's got four years on her little bro, will probably be able to hold her own.

But whatever their social dynamic, Jordan just feels blessed to watch them do their thing.

"It's really, really heartwarming to watch this group," he said. "The way they interact to work with each other and work with the new infants is just incredible."

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