Gombe Today: Understanding Our Closest Living Relatives


Research activities, like other aspects of life, were not spared by the Covid-19 pandemic. In March 2020, Gombe Stream Research Center had to limit research in order to ensure the safety of staff and wildlife alike. Unfortunately, as the Gombe team was also dealing with a separate respiratory disease outbreak from earlier in 2020, some staff remained under strict protocol to monitor their recovery. In April, JGI conducted a series of meetings with park management and JGI Tanzania, continuously updating our Covid-19 guidelines. It was decided that long-term data collection protocols such as B-record follows would resume, but only with essential staff to continue prioritizing the health of all. In November, we were able to restore research activities by implementing strict testing and safety protocols to ensure the prevention of Covid-19 spread.  

Research Highlights 

Despite Covid-19 delays, nonetheless, there were 30 contributions to scientific publications in 2020 sharing Gombe insights, along with dozens of observations covering several ongoing studies in the park. Gombe has three communities: Mitumba, Kasekela, and Kalande. For the last 60 years, JGI has been doing daily target follows of various chimpanzees on alternating days in the forest (known as the B-record).  

The B-record has continued unbroken since Dr. Goodall first began her research, which is now the longest continuous chimpanzee study in the world. In addition, Gombe Stream Research Center (GSRC) researchers and our academic partners are conducting studies on the settlement patterns of young chimpanzee females and chimpanzee vocalization in both central communities. Additionally, studies on Mothers and Infants provide a greater sense of how this important bond shapes successful adults. Like the B-record, it was started by Dr. Goodall herself, and the subsequent longitudinal data is an unparalleled resource for scientists the world over. This research has contributed to tremendous insights, particularly the unique behaviors of Gombe female chimpanzees. Female chimpanzees normally leave their mother’s community when they reach reproductive age at around 12 years old. However, Gombe is unusual in that only 50% of the females leave. One publication out of Duke University in early 2020 concluded that, “Female Chimpanzees with Powerful Moms are Less Likely to Leave Home. Research on this behavior is ongoing and could have great implications for our understanding of the different factors that influence female immigration patterns. 

30 published pieces by researchers in 2020 

300+ science publications from Gombe since 1960 

828 focal follows of individual chimpanzees in 2020 

1 Baboon Twin Birth in 2020. Of 1,200 baboon births documented, there was only one other pair of twins in 1980 

Insights on Chimpanzee Populations 

As ongoing studies help expand our understanding of chimpanzee behavior, GSRC (in collaboration with JGI USA science team) also led a massive three-month chimpanzee survey on the Gombe-Masito-Ugalla (GMU) ecosystem, a vast area south of the Malagarasi river (30,000 km2), which holds the majority of Tanzania’s chimpanzees. Surveys were run at 25 different sites, and data points were logged using Esri’s Survey 123 mobile app on smartphones. This was uploaded into JGI’s ArcGIS Online account for analysis, collaboration, and sharing with decision-makers.  

Using distance survey methods and observations like chimpanzee nests, the population size was estimated to be over 700 individuals. According to a 2018 survey, this reflects a stable chimpanzee population, which is wonderful news for Tanzania’s chimpanzees and our efforts in the region. 

About Author

Ashley Sullivan is the Director of Storytelling & Marketing for Communications & Partnerships at the Jane Goodall Institute USA, where she works to connect individuals with Dr. Jane Goodall's vision, and the JGI mission to create a better world for all by protecting the interconnections between people, other animals, and the environment. Ashley graduated Stony Brook University with a Bachelor's Degree in Anthropology and a minor in Biology, and is pursuing a Master's of Science in Environmental Science & Policy at Johns Hopkins University with a focus on Environmental Justice. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, now a D.C. resident, she has a varied background including 10+ years of expert communications and digital marketing in the social and environmental non-profit sector. Her intersectional approach to this work has been shaped by a holistic world-view, having traveled to Madagascar and Ecuador for conservation research projects, leading communications for youth social justice filmmaking organizations, and as a part of several professional groups advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in environmental spaces including Greens REALIGN. With skills ranging from conservation fieldwork, policy and advocacy campaigns, strategic communications, art, digital media, and design, Ashley believes in sharing information to empower and in the magic of storytelling to transform hearts and minds. Through growing understanding, empathy, and justice, she is igniting positive change to create that better, more equitable world, every day.