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Humans Cause Stressed Chimpanzees to Self-Medicate

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Humans Cause Stressed Chimpanzees to Self-Medicate

By Marc Bekoff
July 2012

We really are all over the place. There's almost no place on the planet where humans haven't invasively intruded as we redecorate nature for our own benefits. We ignore nature and the well-being of other animals and the integrity of fragile webs of nature as we selfishly do whatever we want to do in all sorts of landscapes.

Chimpanzees are known to self-medicate and to be naturalistic pharmacists of a sort. Now we've learned that "village chimpanzees" living in Bulindi, Uganda, in a highly fragmented and degraded forest, suffer from multiple parasite infections and are trying to cure themselves by swallowing leaves from the herb Aneilema nyasense at increasing rates. The leaves of this plant are covered with bristly hairs and researchers think they work because they irritate the chimpanzee's guts when they are swallowed whole causing the chimpanzees to poop.

According to Matthew McLennan, at Oxford Brookes University, "It's a bad situation for everyone ... People's activities are changing the landscape and affecting the chimps' behaviour - if they can't get enough to eat in the forests, they start looking for food in people's fields. Chimpanzees are big wild animals and can be very dangerous; it's not surprising that local people are afraid of them, so they harass them and try to drive them off. But it turns into a vicious cycle, because it can make the chimps more aggressive."

This is yet another example of the innumerable ways in which we effect the lives of wild animals when we intrude into their lives. Some of the animals into whose lives we've moved survive because they're able to adapt to our annoying presence, but there surely are limits beyond which they are unable to cope with the heightened stressors. Indeed, that's why we're losing wild animals at an unprecedented rate.

Compassionate Conservation

The dire reality of the situation now is causing some scientists to wonder if it's really impossible to share habitats with wildlife. If so, we need to change our ways soon because time is not on our side. The real question is how do we protect animals and keep local people happy.

Successful solutions will have to take into account the needs of all of the stakeholders, many if not all of whose lives depend on fostering coexistence. This is one goal of the compassionate conservation movement (see also and also and also). However, when push comes to shove our own interests almost invariably override those of the nonhuman beings into who lives and homes we've moved. What messes we've caused. Shame on us.

We surely can and must do better so that future generations will be able to enjoy the magnificent planet on which we live and not inherit a wasteland of stressed out animals and impoverished landscapes. I remain hopeful that we will rise to the occasion.