What's new at Basel Zoo

On 22 May 2018, Ponima was born in Basel Zoo. At the age of 9, Garissa has become the youngest chimpanzee in the Basel group to become a mother. Ponima is now growing up in a large family with a lot of other young chimpanzees around – a similar situation to the one she would experience in the wild.

Little Ponima is in good health and observes what is going on around her with great curiosity. This may be the first baby for Garissa, but she has taken to caring for Ponima like a natural. All of the mature females in the group at Basel Zoo now have offspring, which is also normal for chimpanzees in the wild. Female chimpanzees always tend to be either raising a baby or pregnant.

Chaos is going to ensue in the next few months as the three baby chimpanzees born last year are now moving around without their mothers. They are scuffling, playing together and swinging on the ropes hanging throughout the enclosure. But it will be a little while until Ponima will be able to join in. She is still hanging onto her mother day and night. 

Offspring at a late age

The high number of young chimpanzees in the group means that the normal interest shown in the young ones is somewhat less intense than usual. This means that Garissa is able to take some time away from the group without the others becoming too intrusive. She only allows her mother Benga (39), her sister Lazima (4) and Colebe (13), who is known for being good with the little ones, anywhere near Ponima.

Female chimpanzees remain fertile for their whole lives and do not go through the menopause as female humans do.  In fact, this phenomenon has currently only been recorded among humans, orcas and pilot whales. The menopause is a change in hormones which occurs in the female of the species at a certain age after which she is no longer fertile.

Five little whirlwinds

Alongside Garissa and Ponima, Basel Zoo is also home to some other chimpanzee mothers: Xindra (43) and her daughter Obuasi (6 months), Kitoko (25) and her son Obaye (1), Fifi (25) and her son Ozouri (1) and Benga (39) and her other daughter Lazima (4). The chimpanzee family is completed with the older female Jacky (51) and the young males Colebe (13), Fahamu (10) and Kume (15). Kume is Ponima’s father. The next baby is expected to be Benga’s as, because young chimpanzees stop being nursed at around four years old, she is probably going to fall pregnant again soon. It is hard to see if a chimpanzee is pregnant just by looking at them as their babies weigh just 2 kilos when they are born, meaning they are really tiny! 

An Endangered Species Programme for chimpanzees

In the wild, around half of chimpanzees do not make it through the first year.  But in zoos, such deaths are very rare. At Basel Zoo, baby female chimpanzees are given away to other zoos while baby male chimpanzees are kept in the group they were born in, just like in the wild. The breeding of chimpanzees in Europe is coordinated by a European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) which determines where young chimpanzees should be sent once they reach maturity.
In the wild, chimpanzees are not facing a very rosy future. They have been classified as ‘endangered’ by the IUCN. One of the reasons they are endangered is because of poaching. Chimpanzees cannot be found anywhere in high numbers and are slow to reproduce. Poachers usually kill whole groups, which can quickly lead to the extinction of a whole population. Populations already made smaller by poaching also suffer badly from habitat loss due to human activity and epidemics such as ebola.