Primatologist Cleve Hicks: On chimpanzee cultures, veganism and how consumers can help save the world

Dr Cleve Hicks: In His Own Words

Chimpanzee Primatologist, Author, Conservationist


Bio: Dr Cleve Hicks

Primatologist Dr Thurston Cleveland (Cleve) Hicks of The Faculty of Artes Liberales, The University of Warsaw has dedicated his life and career to studying the unique behaviour of the ground-nesting, termite mound-smashing Bili-Uéré sub-species of chimpanzees of the Congo.

He has made many fascinating and ground-breaking discoveries in chimpanzee behaviour and culture.

Dr Hicks speaks with Palm Oil Detectives about his chimpanzee research, the state of the world right now, veganism, deforestation, palm oil and what consumers can do to help the endangered animals of Africa.

Palm Oil Detectives interviews Primatologist Dr Cleve Hicks @Cleve_Hicks about why we must urgently respect the #cultures in non-human #apes, being #vegan #palmoil and why he believes in the #Boycott4Wildlife


Monitoring the Bili-Uéré Chimpanzees

Deep in the lush wilderness of the Bili-Uéré region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a large population of Bili-Uéré chimpanzees – Pan troglodytes subspecies schweinfurthii.

My team and I spent over 12 years living in the jungle to get up close to them, our nearest cousins on the evolutionary tree


A century ago, humans believed that tool use was what set us apart from other species. In recent decades, supposedly exclusive human behaviours have been falling to the wayside

Jane Goodall’s discovery of stick tool use by the Gombe chimpanzees in the 1960’s changed this. Now we know that orangutans and many monkeys use tools as well, and that’s only and that’s only looking at primates.

Animals have complex societies, self-awareness, they engage in conduct cooperative hunting, warfare, and even have what looks like active teaching, in orcas

Dr Cleve Hicks


A painting of mine of primates. Photo: Dr Cleve Hicks
Photo: Px Fuel
Photo: Px Fuel

Culture is still revered by some as being a uniquely human characteristic. Our species has, indeed, ‘gone nuclear’, so to speak, with cumulative culture. Look around you.

Nevertheless, if we define culture as socially-transmitted behaviour that varies between populations, we can see at least the seeds of culture in other species, including chimpanzees.

My research shows that Bili-Uéré chimpanzees ignore the abundant Macrotermes termite mounds that are fished for with tools by chimpanzees living in many other areas, including Gombe. Instead, they prey on two other kinds of termites of the genera Cubitermes and Thoractotermes, that are common across chimpanzee range in Africa, but ignored by almost all other populations.

Instead of using tools to get them, the Bili-Uéré chimpanzees pound open their mounds against roots and rocks.

Unlike other chimpanzees but similar to gorillas, Bili-Uéré chimpanzees often make nests to sleep on the ground.

Unusual tool-using chimp culture discovered in the Congo Mongabay Newscast

Primatologist Cleve Hicks leads a research team that has discovered a new tool-using chimp culture in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After 12 years of research, their findings include an entirely new chimpanzee tool kit featuring four different kinds of tools. These chimps also build ground nests, which is highly unusual for any group of chimps, but especially for ones living around dangerous predators like lions and leopards. But these chimps’ novel use of tools and ground nesting aren’t even the most interesting behavioral quirks this group displays, Hicks says on this podcast. If you enjoy this show, please visit www.patreon.com/mongabay to pledge any amount to keep it growing. Mongabay is a nonproft media outlet, so all support helps. We love reviews, so please find the reviews section of the app that delivers your podcasts and tell the world about the Mongabay Newscast, so that we can find new listeners. Thank you! Also, please invite your friends to subscribe via Android, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spotify or wherever they get podcasts. Thank you! And please send thoughts, questions, or feedback about this show to submissions@mongabay.com

Ground nesting is of course somewhat relevant to our own evolution, because at some unknown time our ancestors switched from sleeping in the trees to sleeping on the ground.

“Ground nesting is also relevant to our own evolution, because at some unknown time, our ancestors switched from sleeping in the trees to sleeping on the ground.”

Photo: PX Fuel


The Congo Basin ecosystem began collapsing a long time ago


West African chimpanzee populations crashed by 80 to 90% over the past few decades, due to the proliferation of cocoa and palm oil plantations, mines, civil war and poaching. Vanishing with them are their unique cultures.

Dr Cleve Hicks

Photo: Deforestation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Wikipedia.


This process has accelerated rapidly over the past few decades. Although there are still 10s of 1000s of Eastern chimpanzees in Northern DRC, mining activities are spreading throughout the region, and these can cause great damage to wildlife: Eastern lowland gorillas, for instance, were decimated over the past few decades. Conflict related to mining can also lead to massacres and enslavement of local people.


I am afraid the same thing will happen to chimpanzees quite soon, if the global community does not somehow tame its voracious appetite~ Dr Cleve Hicks

Photo: An open-cut cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The resources plundered here go into the lithium-ion batteries found in our tech devices.


“The recent expansion of the unregulated palm oil industry, which is felling forests worldwide and has now revving up in Central Africa, is giving me nightmares. Thank goodness your organization is doing something to combat it!'”

Dr Cleve Hicks

I think we’re all beginning to realize how our recent cultural divorce from the rest of the natural world is having a terrible effect on ourselves and on all other life.


Palm oil has already devastated South East Asia. I can see it gobbling up tropical forest where I currently live in Colombia as well


Oil palm has been used for millennia by indigenous peoples of Africa in an ecologically rather sound way.

The imminent homecoming of palm oil to Africa under the framework of global capitalism is likely to reduce the glorious Central African forests to ashes.

These forests are poised to be replaced by endless, lifeless plantations, just so we can all pay a slightly cheaper price for junk food.

Brands Using Deforestation Palm Oil in their Products

Brands Using Deforestation Palm Oil in their Products

These brands have products that contain palm oil sourced from mills that are responsible for the destruction of precious habitats of endangered species. Just in 2020 alone, these brands (along with many others) contributed to the destruction of 38,000ha of rainforest in Indonesia, SE Asia and Papua New Guinea. Therefore, these brands are directly involved in the extinction of species.

I salute the efforts of Palm Oil Detectives

I think the #Boycott4Wildlife is a good initiative

Photo: PX Fuel


Palm Oil Detectives helps to shine light on these abuses and bring some degree of accountability to this immensely destructive oil palm behemoth

It is also critical to reach those millions of well-meaning people who may be unaware of the effects that their daily supermarket purchases are having on the natural world. The problems seem so huge. There seems to be so little that an individual can do.

But consumers can and should choose to boycott companies who are behaving irresponsibly and unethically. Going vegan, as I did years ago, is one way an individual can make a big difference.

Dr Cleve Hicks

“Consumers can and should #boycott brands causing #palmoil #meat #soy #deforestation. I support the #Boycott4Wildlife, going vegan is another way an individual can make a difference to #rainforests #animals” #Primatologist @Cleve_Hicks

I painted this Bili-Uéré chimpanzee for the cover of the journal Folia Primatologica

Greenwashing is rife with the foods we eat and the products we buy

Labelling products as forest-friendly is a start. Although there is loads of corruption around the world about to how these labels, including palm oil, are certified.

I make every effort in my personal life to not buy products containing palm oil.

Dr Cleve Hicks

Food manufacturers should offer us consumers a greater variety of tasty vegan products and also food that does not use palm oil or soy, that has been harvested from the ashes of old-growth tropical forests.

Consumers should seek out and demand more locally-grown foods in their supermarkets.

Consumers can also help donating to groups working on the frontline everyday like the Black Mambas, an all female anti-poaching team!


I wrote the children’s book ‘A Rhino to the Rescue’ because rhino populations have been decimated in the past century

Sometimes working in conservation can be extremely frustrating. Seeing many dead primate orphans in the Congo had a deep effect on me. So I decided to use watercolours and create my own world and hero, the endearingly bumbling Ernest Horningway. He is a gentrified rhino who goes to Africa to meet his wild cousins and help them. It’s difficult to convey the terrible problem of wildlife trafficking to children.


My hope is that my whimsical tale will expose children to important information about what is happening in our world without traumatising them.

I also wanted to help out the brave conservationists in the field protecting Ernest’s cousins, which is why we donate some of the proceeds of the book to Black Mambas and Bush Babies. Big news: we have a French translation of the book coming out very soon!

When you purchase the book ‘A Rhino to the Rescue’, 10% of proceeds go towards the Black Mambas

Buy now on Amazon and find out more on these social channels


All of the non-human apes, especially orangutans and bonobos need our urgent protection right now!

Photo: Pixabay


Along with the Black Mambas and Bush Babies which I previously mentioned, animal activists can help by supporting these great organisations:

The African Wildlife Foundation

They have protected the wildlife of Bili for the past 10 years. They co-funded my 2012 surveys which revealed a stable chimpanzee population. This survey helped convince them to set up a project there.

The Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation

These people work hard to protect the fauna of Democratic Republic of Congo and Bili.

The Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Center

They provide a home for orphan chimpanzees and other primates, and employ local people to give them care.

The International Primate Protection League

These people heroically work around the clock to protect non-human primates around the world.

The Wild Chimpanzee Foundation

I recommend this organisation as well, they focus on saving the critically endangered West African chimpanzees.

Bonobo Alive

This organisation does incredible work to save bonobos.


Another very effective way to help endangered wildlife is to go vegan

I have been vegan for 20 years. I was inspired to do so while studying western lowland gorillas for 2 years in a forest called Mondika. After all, nobody asks a (mostly) vegan silverback gorilla, how he gets his protein!

Really, if one cares about the state of our global environment the easiest and most effective thing anyone can do is go vegan, or at least greatly reduce one’s consumption of meat and dairy products.

What is more important, another lousy hamburger or the survival of the Amazon and Congolese rainforests, and all the plants, nonhuman animals and people living in them? Not to mention what we are doing to our seas!

Dr Cleve Hicks

With our ‘new and improved’ global society, the human species is opening up a dangerous Pandora’s box!


We need to consider what we truly of value when we make our consumer decisions: human lives, intact ecosystems, music, poetry, love.

These things are to be cherished far more than slightly cheaper products at the supermarket that are turning our beautiful green planet into an ugly parking lot!

We need to think about the world that we’re leaving behind for future generations of human and non-human beings.

dr cleve hicks
Rainforest by Craig Jones

Photography: Wikipedia, Dr Cleve Hicks, PxFuel: Royalty Free Images.

Illustrations: Dr Cleve Hicks

Words: Dr Cleve Hicks

Join the #Boycott4Wildlife on supermarket brands causing palm oil deforestation

Recommended reading/watching

Chimpanzee Culture Wars: Rethinking Human Nature Alongside Japanese, European, and American Cultural Primatologists This book with deals with the debate about non-human culture, as well as the conservation crisis facing non-human apes.

Becoming Wild by Carl Safina

Visions Of Caliban: On Chimpanzees and People by Dale Peterson & Jane Goodall

The Cultured Chimpanzee: Reflections on Cultural Primatology by William McGrew

Chimpanzee Material Culture: Implications for Human Evolution by William McGrew

The Zocay Project: My wife Sonia and I encounter South American monkeys in the jungles of Colombia.

Published by Palm Oil Detectives

Hi, I’m Palm Oil Detective’s Editor in Chief. Palm Oil Detectives is partly a consumer website about palm oil in products and partly an online community for writers, artists and musicians to showcase their work and express their love for endangered species. I have a strong voice for creatures great and small threatened by deforestation. With our collective power we can shift the greed of the retail industry and influence big palm oil to stop cutting down forests. Be bold! Be courageous! Join me and stand up for the animals with your art and your supermarket choices

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