Image: Gregoire, Africa's oldest chimp
Jane Goodall Institute
Gregoire, 1942(?) - 2008 Gregoire at the Jane Goodall Institute's Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center.
updated 12/23/2008 3:00:58 PM ET 2008-12-23T20:00:58

Jane Goodall Institute staff members are mourning the death of Gregoire, Africa's oldest known chimpanzee. Gregoire, who was 66 years old, was international symbol for the conservation of all animals, particularly those which suffered human-inflicted abuse prior to their rescue.

On Dec. 17, Gregoire passed away peacefully in his sleep at JGI's Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center in the Republic of Congo. He died next to a female chimpanzee named Clara, from whom he had been inseparable for many years.

"Gregoire was an incredibly resilient being," Lisa Pharoah, JGI Africa Program manager for West and Central Africa, told Discovery News. "Particularly for our Congolese staff, he served as a symbol for how we can all overcome adversity. There was such a gentleness about him."

For more than 40 years, Gregoire lived in solitary confinement in a barren cage at the Brazzaville Zoo in the Republic of Congo's capital city. Conservationist Aliette Jamar noticed the animal's poor condition and contacted Jane Goodall, who was horrified when she first saw the caged chimp.

"I gazed at this strange being, alone in his bleak, cement-floored cage," Goodall later recalled. "His pale, almost hairless skin was stretched tightly over his emaciated body so that every bone could be seen. His eyes were dull as he reached out with a thin, bony hand for a proffered morsel of food. Was this really a chimpanzee?"

She arranged for a caretaker to look after Gregoire and provide him with a healthier diet. In 1997, however, the intermittent Congo civil war worsened, leading to fighting just half a mile away from the zoo. With each shell explosion, Gregoire would duck under his sleeping shelf, to the point that his back was scraped raw.

Gregoire, along with other chimpanzees at the Brazzaville Zoo, was airlifted to Point Noire and then to the Tchimpounga sanctuary.

Shell shocked, Gregoire required time to recover. When he did, the chimp's gregarious personality blossomed.

"We all have favorite stories about Gregoire," said Pharoah, who visited the chimp in the Congo about a week before his death.

Caring for zoo seniors "One fond memory concerns when his sleeping quarters had to be renovated," she shared. "A privacy wall that separated his nest with Clara and a second nest for two other females had to be temporarily removed. Gregoire sulked for days until the wall was erected again. He was definitely in love with Clara and needed his private time with her."

The Tchimpounga center houses 142 other primates, mostly orphaned chimpanzees whose parents were killed due to the bushmeat trade, and former house pets.

Claire Jones, a spokesperson for JGI, explained to Discovery News that often people bring home "cute and cuddly baby chimps, only to learn later that they grow to become strong and powerful beings that they cannot handle."

Shirley McGreal, chairwoman of the International Primate Protection League, told Discovery News that many chimps and other primates continue to suffer at poorly run zoos, particularly in Africa and Asia.

"They are fed cigarettes, given soft drink bottles and often live under deplorable conditions," McGreal said. "Keep in mind that zoos are more of a western concept often established by expatriates in countries where it's otherwise believed animals should exist in a more natural, free environment."

Like Goodall, however, she hopes conservation groups will eventually be able to provide sanctuary and improve conditions for all animals.

Two primates without such worries are Cheeta the chimp and Igor the gibbon. Cheeta, who famously starred in 12 Tarzan films, lives at the primate sanctuary Creative Habitats and Enrichment for Endangered and Threatened Apes in sunny Palm Springs. He is 75 now, and could very well be the oldest known chimp in the world.

Igor, now under the care of McGreal and her staff, spent 26 years in research labs. He was so traumatized that when he used to see other gibbons, he would savagely mutilate himself.

Like Gregoire, Igor recovered from his past.

"One of his favorite things to do now is to watch Sesame Street on television," McGreal said.

She added, "He would watch Animal Planet, but our sanctuary doesn't have cable."

More on  Jane Goodall   |  Chimpanzees

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