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Wellington’s Chimpanzee Community – A profile

This week we are profiling three of the most important members of Wellington Zoo’s Chimpanzee community!


They are Kitwe, Alexis, and Sally. If you get the chance to go and see Wellington Zoo’s Chimpanzees, you should really try and spend a lot of time watching them – they exhibit fascinating social dynamics.

The baby of the group, Kitwe

Kitwe is the youngest member of the community; he is 4 years old and was born at Wellington Zoo. He was named by Dr Jane Goodall, OBE, after an area south of Gombe that was once stripped of trees and is now a lovely forest again. Both him, and his namesake forest represent ‘proof of the resilience of nature’. Kitwe still has a little white tuft of hair which is a sign of youth, so the troop let him get away with a lot of things that other Chimpanzees wouldn’t. His best friend is 6 and a half year old Bakari. See if you can spot them playing together!

Kitwe hanging around with his mum, Keza

20 year old Alexis is the alpha male, and has been for more than 2 years. He is very caring and attentive with the youngsters and takes his alpha responsibilities seriously, stepping in to resolve any conflict within the community .

Alexis the alpha male keeping an eye out

Sally has been the alpha female since Alexis stepped in as alpha male. She is the mother of Kitwe’s friend, Bakari. She is a very nurturing mother, and Zoo visitors will probably be able to see this behaviour in action. Because she is such a strong-willed and popular female she really stands out in the group.

Bakari on the left, her mum Sally, the alpha female in the middle, and another female, Cara, on the right.

The Zoo’s 10 strong community of Chimpanzees are the most expensive animal at the Zoo to feed – it costs on average $1000 per week! The group gets over 32kg of food a day. This amounts to 7kg of fruit, 10kg of vegetables, 10kg of leafy greens, 5kg of specialised primate pellets and additional meat, treats and seeds. This nutrition is crucial for such large, powerful and intelligent animals. They are roughly 6 times stronger than a person, they can recognise themselves in a mirror, have the ability to learn sign language, and are one of the few mammals that can manufacture tools! All those brains and muscles take a lot of fuel!

Kitwe, Alexis, Sally, and the 7 other Chimpanzees at Wellington Zoo are extremely lucky to have recently moved into their newly redesigned habitat! This habitat upgrade was officially completed in mid-December with an opening ceremony in the new Chimp Park visitor area. The $1.2m changes were made with support from Wellington City Council and Pub Charity.

At the opening, Animal Care Manager Jo Richardson explained the new features to our reporter. The key change is that the habitat is now split into three “zones”. When a Chimpanzee is in one of the zones, they cannot see into the other two zones. This facilitates the Zoo community to simulate the wild behaviour of Chimpanzee communities , which often split into sub-groups to forage during the day. When the Chimpanzees are in these sub-groups, separate from the main group, they make a “pant-hoot” vocalisation in order to keep each other up to date on their movements.

Female Chimp Malika admiring one of the new nesting towers while halfway through a “pant-hoot” call.

The nesting towers are another key feature of the new habitat design, which have been installed on poles donated by Transpower and The Wellington Cable Car Company. These platforms have been designed to simulate the wild nesting behaviour of Chimps. In the wild, Chimps nest at different levels on large trees. The multi-tiered platforms stand in for the crooks formed by boughs of these trees, enabling the Chimps to choose their favourite spot.

Notice the tiered arrangement of the platforms on this nesting tower. Photo: TWA / Jonny Brown

The development of the upgrade to the Chimp habitat was largely a home-grown affair, with senior Zoo staff working closely with construction contractors at every stage, to ensure that the project was suited to the circumstances of the troop in particular. Zoo staff even helped to weave the large hammocks made from recycled fire hose!

If you haven’t visited the Zoo in a while, checking out the new and improved Chimpanzee habitat is a great excuse to spend the day in the sun with your family! For an extra special experience, head to the Chimpanzee habitat at 12:30 to hear a talk by one of their Keepers and to watch the Chimpanzees scoff down their lunch!