Wild chimps help spread cacao trees

Chimpanzees can be a nuisance by stealing fruits and other produce, but in the Central African country of Guinea, they're helping farmers to propogate a useful cash-crop - chocolate.

Chimpanzees help disperse cacao plants by eating their fruits. © Nicola Bryson-Morrison

Somewhere on this planet, someone has enjoyed a bar of chocolate – and they’ve got a chimpanzee to thank for it.

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No, our closest-living relatives haven’t been co-opted into operating the machinery at confectionary factory or selling chocolate bars at newsagents.

Instead, around the village of Bossou in the Central African country of Guinea, chimpanzees have been observed feeding on cacao pods from human-cultivated plants.

They’re after the sweet pulp that surrounds the seeds – sometimes, they spit the seeds out where they feed, sometimes they swallow them whole and they come out in their faeces.

And sometimes, those seeds germinate and a new cacao plant appears. If the farmer discovers the plant, then they will help it to grow by clearing weeds and cutting down other saplings that otherwise might hinder its development.

“We’re not talking about chimps planting a whole plantation,” said Dr Kimberley Hockings, of Oxford Brookes University who published her research in the International Journal of Primatology, “but we are talking about enough for farmers to harvest additional cacao seeds and then sell them.”

“This research has highlighted the possibility that the dispersal of crops by animals at other sites has the potential to positively impact the ability of wildlife to coexist in human-impacted habitats,” Hockings added, “especially if farmers gain economic benefits through the wildlife’s dispersal of crops.”

Wild animals – such as chimps but also many others – can be a problem for farmers in Africa and all over the world because they take crops.

In Bossou, Hockings said, people are generally tolerant of chimpanzees, except if they take cash crops such as oranges or staple ones such as rice.

“A chimpanzee can feed on 50 oranges in one sitting,” she said. “That can be one week’s salary eaten by one chimp in one go, so you can understand why they don’t like them.”

And while the benefits they create by ‘planting’ cacao trees may not offset these other losses, it does at least give the rest of the world a reason to be thankful.

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As long as you’re not on a diet.