A note published in The Economist, respected journal that it is, has generated interest in Karl's recent activities involving the possibility of very interesting apes/gorilla found in the Bili/Bondo area of the Congo. Much interest has been generated and the media has been reporting on these findings and the scientific community has commented and gotten involved.

Karl considers some of this activity not only to have been premature and incorrect, but above all scientifically far fetched and tendentious and lays out this position in a letter to the director of the Omaha Zoo.

To really understand the present state of knowledge concerning these chimps it is necessary to read the field updates. Here is the update to reflect data collected in the summer and fall of 2004. This included 12 contacts with the chimpanzees in the study area, a contact being defined as a period of time where the chimpanzees and the observers are aware of one another. The winter 2004 update represents daten taken through December 2004 included 40 days of collection and many contacts.

Also of interest is the recent participation of IBED (the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystems Dynamics, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands). Here is the IBED report.

Please also read of Karl's efforts with the bushmeat crisis which threatens the survival of all of the great apes in the wild.

The Economist - 17.10.2003

A species of ape unrecognised by science may exist in the Congo

A HUNDRED years ago, on October 17th 1902, Oscar von Beringe, a German explorer, "suddenly noticed a troupe of large black monkeys" while climbing a volcano in eastern Congo. "We were able to shoot two of these monkeys," he wrote, "which hurtled down the gorge of the crater with an incredible rumble." That von Beringe then found himself   "unable to classify the monkey" is not surprising. He was the first European to come into contact with a mountain gorilla.

Gorillas, mountain and otherwise, are rare now. Poachers kill the adults for their meat, and sometimes to make knick-knacks for foreigners. Youngsters are taken from the wild to adorn private zoos. But even after a century, that diminished population may yet hold a surprise.

In 1908 two apes were shot near a place called Bondo, in northern Congo. Their skulls (and two others found in local dwellings) had the crests characteristic of gorillas, but they were unusual enough for taxonomists of the time to classify them as a separate subspecies. Since then, no further specimens of this subspecies have been recorded. Four years ago, Karl Amman, a Swiss wildlife photographer, took up the quest to rediscover the missing gorillas. What he has found is not yet clear. But it might just be a new species of ape.

click either image for more details
ground nest - rare for chimpscrested skulls - usually gorillas
Ground nestCrested Skulls

Mr Amman's expeditions into the forest of Bili, near Bondo (the latest of which, accompanied by this correspondent, has just returned from the bush) have not seen a live ape. But they have found a lot of ground nests. Such nests are characteristic of gorillas. Chimpanzees, the other species of ape that lives in this area, prefer to sleep in trees. Other spoor point to the presence of gorillas, too. Feces in the area resemble those of gorillas, as does the way that saplings are broken down around nest sites. As if to clinch it, Mr Amman has also found another crested skull lying around.

Some of the nests, however, have hairs in them. And hairs contain DNA. That yielded a surprise. The DNA looks like that of a chimpanzee, not a gorilla. Moreover, a re-interpretation of the skull Mr Amman found has pronounced it to be that of a chimp, albeit a crested one. And analysis of the feces suggests that whatever dropped them was eating a fruit-rich diet. That is also characteristic of chimps. What Mr Amman seems to have found is a chimpanzee that behaves like a gorilla.
click either image for more details
hair samples
Hair Samples
this print is huge for a chimp
Huge Chimp Prints?

Local hunters' reports point to something unusual, too. Bondo's hunters do not distinguish between gorillas and chimpanzees. Instead, they divide the local apes into "tree-beaters" and "lion-killers." These two types look the same, and both flee hunters. But lion-killers, say the hunters of Bili, are much bigger and are difficult to kill, even with a poisoned arrow. Several enormous chimp footprints seem to confirm the hunters' reports of an out-sized chimp. And, in a photograph recently obtained from a hunter, the body of one chimp appears to be about 1.8 metres tall (five feet or so). Indeed, to nest confidently on the ground in forest thick with lions and leopards, the lion-killers would probably have to be of such a size.

Whether such lion-killers really are a distinct population, corresponding to Mr Amman's ground-nesting "chimpanzees" and whether they are so different from other great apes that they constitute a separate species, remains to be seen. But it is surprising that in the early years of the 21st century such a discovery could even be contemplated. Apparently, the jungle has not given up all its secrets yet.

Karl's notes on The Bili Mystery Chimpanzees

The Economist article has lead to a lot of inquiries and requests for more detailed information. Not being a scientist myself I am aware that and specific feedback has to be "politically correct". Below are facts and interpretations of facts I am comfortable with. However for a final analysis as to what might be mysterious about the chimpanzees around Bili I would prefer if readers would form their own opinions based on the photographic material we present as well as comments on the DNA analysis.

Tervuren Museum Skulls
In 1898 a Belgian officer returning from the Congo provided the Tervuren Museum in Bruxelles with three gorilla skulls which he had collected near Bondo in Northern Congo and a village further south near the Itumbiri River.

This Bondo location is about half way between the extreme edges of the Western and Eastern distribution of any gorilla populations.

In 1937 based on the skulls anatomical differences and their unique origin Henri Schouteden named an new subspecies: Gorilla Gorilla uellensis.

I did a first survey of the forests around Bondo in 1996 returning with a skull which had a pronounced sagittal crest (as male gorillas do). However all the rest of the measurements associated with the skull were those of a chimpanzee.

In the subsequent years the war situation in most of the Congo made travel to the Bili/Bondo area very difficult. I recruited a Cameroonian bush meat hunter to visit and survey the area. This guy had killed dozens of chimpanzees and gorillas in his life and would be able to assess any tracks he would find.

He did not manage to get to Bili or Bondo but was blocked at a village north of Bili where he surveyed the surrounding forest. He came back with photographs and a report having found gorilla ground nests.

In the year 2004 I returned for further research. We found in the area described a range of ground nests of different ages. All large all made in swampy river beds and all well built and worn (not likely being day nests).

The local population told tales of large and normal chimps. The normal ones could be hunted with the poisoned arrows when feeding in trees, the big ones however hardly climbed trees and would not succumb to the poison fast enough before fleeing and getting lost in the forests. The Azande translation for names used for apes include: The ones which beat the tree! and The one which kills the lion.

This referring to the fact that this forests and savannah mosaic ecosystem is home to a range of predators including lions, hyenas (which regularly attack people) and leopards. The elephants also seem to prefer the vegetation in the very river beds we kept finding the ground nests.

Collecting fecal and hair samples from ground nests turned out to be a lot easier than it would have been with the tree nesting population of chimps of which we also found evidence on a regular basis.

The results of some of the initial mt DNA analysis was that we were looking at a chimp population which grouped nicely with the schweinfurthii subspecies but also with some individuals of the further west living Ptt subspecies. (see Phylogenetic Tree below)

While collecting more samples from tree and ground nests to hopefully compare the relationship between the tree and ground nesting groups we found some additional interesting evidence of a chimp population which seems to include some very large animals which in turn - probably due to size and weight - have adopted the different and new nesting culture.
click either image for more details
Bondo mystery ape caught in a photo traplarge chimp shot near Bondo
Photo Trap ShotShot near Bondo

The forests in the riverbeds concerned are very dense and as such we have not managed to see any of these chimps and as a solution I acquired some trip cameras triggered by the animals themselves. Here is one of these images which I for one consider impressive and interesting.

Then a few months ago I heard about a chimp which was shot near Bondo and which supposedly had been very large. The story was that the carcass had been photographed. I sent one of my trackers to Bondo to find the hunter and he came back with the photograph in question.

None of the scientist having looked at the evidence has so far gone on record with estimating the size in terms of kilos or pounds of the two chimps in the photographs.

While several labs hold fecal and hair samples to analyze the nuclear DNA and via the Y chromosome the male relationships none of this work has been concluded yet. Some preliminary comments on the DNA are attached.

Several survey trips to the south of Bili and the East have shown that ground nesting is indeed geographically limited to our main research area and some of the surrounding forests.

In the meantime I have started provisioning a clearing in the ground nesting area with sugar cane. The nearby village is growing the cane and putting it on an elevated platform two times a week. In January of 2004 I will install a trip video camera to film the villagers doing their job and hopefully chimp groups stopping by to feast on the sugar cane.

I have little doubt that sometimes soon we will be able to look at images of what are very very big chimpanzees doing there thing in the forests of Bili and Bondo. I have little doubt that 'their thing' will illustrate a new chimp culture and possibly quiet a bit more.

Photographic Evidence

In addition to the above photographs, we have prepared an interesting presentation related to this mystery ape. Please click here and give them your attention. Alternately you may watch our slide show presentation of the photographic evidence (patience while it loads).

Letter Concerning Activites leading to DNA testing - 08-21-2003

Rotterdam, August 21st 2003

Dr. Lee Simmons
Director, Henry Doorly Zoo
Omaha, Nebraska

Dear Dr. Simmons,

Reference is made to a recent Associated Press feature on "Omaha Zoo testing DNA of a mystery ape".

A lot of the information presented in this feature is incorrect, scientifically far fetched and some of it clearly outdated.

If you look at the web site; http://www.karlammann.com you will find the complete history of the search for the Bili/Bondo Gorillas. All aspects of the research conducted since October 1998 are outlined and documented.

To get the research to this stage involved the establishment of a correspondinginfrastructure: from constructing an airstrip, cutting roads in the forest,building bridges, setting up a research camp, repairing the only vehicles based at Bili, to bringing in HF radio equipment, solar panels, generators, a motorbike as well as all the camping equipment.

In addition special permits needed to be negotiated with the local authorities and the rebel government requiring various trips to Kinshasa and Gbadolite. We also had to negotiate a working relationship with a Mission Aviation Service to be allowed to share in the use of aircrafts and to arrange for charters at
reasonable rates.

In 2004 two film teams accompanied Mr. Ammann , Dr. George Schaller, Dr. Christoph Boesch, Dr. Wrangham, Dr. Butyinski, Dr. Sarmiento on a five week field visit. This was based on the aforementioned scientists having evaluated all the available evidence and watching video footage of ground nests, hair and fecal samples, foot prints, red ant fishing sites etc.

These scientists came to the conclusion that while some of the chimps around Bili may have some interesting new cultural traits worth investigating, there was little evidence for a new species or even sub species.

Since then the ground nests, the crested skull, the foot casts have also been featured in a special half an hour documentary by CNN and BBC World. The Economist last year did a special feature on the facts surrounding the Bili chimp population as well.

The DNA result, in form of mt DNA was done by three different labs arriving to the same conclusion. (The ground nesting chimps are clearly of the schweinfurthii subspecies). For your information, we are attaching you an exchange of emails between Dr. Wrangham and Dr. Gagneux, the contents of which is self-explanatory and
illustrates that carrying out more mt DNA analysis is essentially a duplication of past efforts.

In this context, we also attach a request from Dr. Colin Groves of the DNA data that at this stage would advance the genetic picture. Should your lab be willing and able to carry out this research, this may well be a basis for a
constructive collaboration in the future.

After the site visit of some of the worlds leading primatologists, it became clear that the only way to learn more about the ground nesting chimpanzees of Bili, was to habituate them. That's when Dr. Shelly Williams was offered to help with the habituation - after all the above facts had been clearly established.

The first five years of research also showed that there was a very serious problem of bush meat poaching, affecting not only the elephant population but the chimpanzees as well. It became clear that if these chimps were to be habituated and researched, a serious conservation project was necessary to guarantee their medium and hopefully long term survival.

The Wasmoeth Wildlife Foundation ( www.wasmoethwildlife.org) agreed to fund a project whereby the population of the region would be able to sell their coffee beans again at fair market prices, and would, in return, refrain from poaching all protected species.

This project has now been running for two years. It is reasonably successful and so far has cost several hundred thousands of dollars. The project is based on an agreement signed with the central authority as well as the relevant local authorities and covers scientific research and the habituation of one group of chimpanzees.

We have made it clear to Dr. Williams and Dr. Colin Groves that the research of the Bili chimps would have to be part of a wider project but that it was also the basis for the conservation project and in fact an integral part of it.

Dr. Williams and Dr. Groves negotiated a research grant of some U$ 20,000 with the National Geographic Society, in exchange for total exclusivity of any media coverage, we disagreed with such a scheme and emphasized that the research project was largely going to ride on the back of the conservation project infrastructure and as such that under no circumstance could one party claim all the credits while the other party was making all the necessary investments. More importantly, there were existing legal commitments regarding an additional documentary film to be produced by the teams that accompanied the scientists in 2004.

After it became clear, during a recent meeting with Nat. Geographic, that the funding would not be available - at least not in the near future- to carry on with the research without jeopardizing the integrity of the overall project, we advised Dr. Williams and Dr. Groves that we would instruct our US lawyers to draft a separate research agreement, based on our existing agreement with the government and the local authorities.

Dr. Williams was very well aware that such an agreement was being drafted and would be available for review shortly.

We therefore consider the above mentioned press release - which as it would appear was widely circulated - not only to have been premature and incorrect, but above all scientifically far fetched and tendentious (As the one photograph which Dr. Williams uses shows clearly the local people do hunt the big chimps, they do not howl at the moon but are more vocal during full moon nights, the bodies are those of chimps and not gorillas and so is their diet.)

There are at least two pictures available of chimpanzees looking larger than what is considered average size, but the aforementioned scientists do not consider them conclusive. They are, however, a lot more conclusive than any of the video footage Dr. Williams returned with. (much shot by one of the trackers, who has been with the project since 1999). Besides that footage, there is absolutely nothing Dr. Williams has contributed that was not known and established before she got involved.

The habituation was started, with local trackers trying to find the chimps at regular intervals and trying to provision them with sugar cane, long before Dr. Williams visited for the first time.

Needless to say, that we are totally dismayed with Dr. William's unprofessional attitude and her unscientific and mendacious press release.

This simply can not be the basis for future cooperation and we shall inform the local, regional and central authority by copy of this letter that from now on Dr. Williams is no longer welcome in the project area, as per the terms and conditions of our existing research and conservation agreement with the authorities.

Consequently, any further interference by Dr. William's may adversely affect the project and the people of Bili.

Yours sincerely,
Karl Ammann, Hans A. Wasmoeth

Phylogenetic Tree

phylogenetic chimp tree

Comments on the DNA Tests

Here are some comments received so far with the DNA results:
  • They are based on the hypervariable segment of the Mitochondrial Genome.
  • An alternative to sampling the same few animals over and over again is that we are dealing with a very inbred and marginal population in which even a large number of animals could share identical or or near identical haplotypes.
  • The chimpanzees we have so far sampled and sequenced from East of the Ubangui seem to consistently lack this large amount of genetic diversity characteristic for all other chimpanzee populations.
  • It means that the chimps of Central and Eastern Africa really do belong to a common cluster (subspecies). But within that cluster no clear partitioning of schweinfurthii versus troglodytes.
  • Several samples of the last batch group with no other sequences they come out of the root of the Ptt Pts cluster and form their own branch.
and from a morphologist:
  • There is a general misunderstanding about genetics including by those that are working with it. Genetic analysis is not presently a very accurate method for determining relationships of populations. Moreover it is long, labrious and costly and necessitates a large sample to make any sense of it.

Related Links - Chimp Culture, Yeti and Bigfoot

More to come. Send us your favorite links for inclusion. And don't let this interesting side trip divert your understanding that the bushmeat crisis threatens the continued survival of any of the great apes in the wild.

Karl Ammann

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