In recognition of her pioneering work with chimps on the savannas of Senegal, Jill Pruetz was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2008. Over the years she and her team have discovered that chimps were using tools to kill bush babies, chimps stayed in caves to keep cool, and even successfully returned a lost baby chimp to its mother in the wild. Her work was featured in the National Geographic magazine article, “Almost Human.”
What project are you working on now?
Currently, I am still director of the Fongoli Savanna Chimpanzee Project in southeastern Senegal. The research is in its eleventh year. We are focusing on tool-assisted hunting of bush babies, food-and-tool sharing, and we are starting more extensive research on how the chimpanzees used the burned landscape after the dry season bush fires begin.
What did the support from National Geographic help you accomplish?
National Geographic supported my very first year of research in Senegal, when many organizations thought setting out to study chimps in a savanna habitat was too risky of an endeavor. I credit National Geographic with taking a chance on me, and my ideas. They really enabled me to go on and be successful in what I do. They have also supported me with various grants over the years and in recognizing me as an Emerging Explorer.
What is the biggest threat facing chimps today?
Habitat disturbance and disappearance is a big threat for chimps. Savanna chimps in Senegal are actually a little better off, as they are not dependent on forests. However, large-scale gold and iron mining corporations are moving into Senegal in force, and such large-scale change could wipe out entire communities of chimps.
If you had an endless supply of funds, what would your next project be?
If I had an endless supply of funds I would bring in more students to enlarge our study of savanna chimpanzees across the country of Senegal, which is at the northern edge of chimpanzee distribution in Africa. In Senegal, most chimpanzees live outside protected areas, so key to scientific studies would be working with local people who share their lands with chimpanzees. I would also expand our educational programs in Senegal and make more educational opportunities available to rural children in Senegal, especially girls. I would love to offer scholarships to Senegalese students so they could pursue university studies in the United States.
Have you ever gotten attached to a certain chimp in particular?
I didn’t realize how attached I was to my favorite chimp Frito—an adolescent male who was a real character and who literally reached out to me once (I had to ignore him)—until he died a couple of years ago. That was a hard year for me, and it made me ponder more about how I felt about the chimps. Unfortunately, it has changed the way I think to some degree—I’ve had to become a little more detached. I am definitely still attached to the chimps and especially some individuals, but I am always aware that they could die or disappear at any time.
If you could trade places with one explorer at National Geographic, who would it be and why?
This is a difficult question, because I really wouldn’t want to change places with anyone! But I would have to say it would be with Emma Stokes. I’ve always had a soft spot for gorillas, although I wouldn’t trade the Fongoli chimps for them!
What do you think National Geographic explorers will be exploring in a hundred years?
I think we’ll be exploring hidden places, but also how humans have affected our wild places. I hope there are many of them left.
What’s the biggest surprise you’ve discovered in your work or in the field?
The biggest surprise was finding out that chimpanzees hunt other primates (a prosimian primate called a galago) with tools, something we thought only humans really did systematically.
Have you ever been lost? How did you get found?
I’ve been a little bit lost a few times! I follow the chimps on my own. I see a lot more and the chimps are more relaxed. I leave them at night after they make their nests and, if I didn’t have my GPS, I’d be sleeping out with them more nights than I’ve planned!
What one item do you always have with you?
What are you reading?
Right now I’m reading A Lawyer’s Journey: The Morris Dees Story about a lawyer in the U.S. who fights for civil rights. I’m also reading the last book Toshisada Nishida, the eminent Japanese primatologist, wrote before he passed away recently. It’s about the Mahale chimpanzees in Tanzania.
What is your favorite National Geographic magazine or news article?
I would have to pick the one in April 2008 that focuses on the Fongoli chimps I study, and features a Frans Lanting photo of my favorite chimpanzee, Frito, hunting with a tool.
If you were to bring back one species of animal that has gone extinct, what would it be?
Miss Waldron’s red colobus monkey
What is your favorite food?