An extensive survey of an isolated region in northern Democratic Republic of Congo has uncovered one of the largest remaining populations of Eastern chimpanzee which, until now, had been completely unknown to science.
In the last 30 years the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), despite being one of the most charismatic of all the great apes, has suffered such a drastic a decline in numbers that it is now listed as an endangered species. The surviving population clearly needs to be protected, yet with only crude estimates of the total population available, it is difficult for conservationists to know where best to focus their efforts. Frustratingly, there are still large parts of Africa containing habitat suitable for chimpanzees that have never even been surveyed.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is one country that contains large tracts of potential habitat for chimpanzees, but this region has received little attention from researchers in the past, largely because of the danger from ongoing conflicts and treacherous terrain in many parts of the country. However, this is all set to change with the publication of results from surveys carried out in the Central Uele Basin of the Democratic Republic of Congo between 2004 and 2009.
The researchers trekked for thousands of kilometres along forest trails looking for signs of chimpanzees. And what they found was extremely encouraging. The Central Uele region, which extends across a vast area of at least 50,000 km2, appears to be home to tens of thousands of chimps – far more than are currently thought to inhabit all of West Africa. This makes it one of the most important populations of chimpanzees in Africa and deserves immediate protection.
But there are some worrying signs that this region is no longer as secluded as it once was. During the survey work, the team began to find more and more chimpanzee orphans and even carcasses scattered along roads in the southern part of the region. At the same time, the security situation in that part of the country continues to deteriorate, with increasing numbers of militia groups and armed brigands moving though the area. And with the availability of bushmeat declining elsewhere, commercial bushmeat hunters are pursuing animals, including chimpanzees, farther into the forest. Given the push for agricultural expansion and valuable mining operations throughout the country, it seems likely that these incursions into chimp territory will only become more frequent. But if conservation laws are properly enforced, there is hope that this population of chimpanzees can be protected from mounting human pressure and their life in the forest preserved.
Reference: Thurston C. Hicks, Sandra Tranquilli, Hjalmar Kuehl, Geneviève Campbell, Jeroen Swinkels, Laura Darby, Christophe Boesch, John Hart, & Steph B.J. Menken (2014). Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence: Discovery of a large, continuous population of Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii in the Central Uele region of northern DRC Biological Conservation, 171, 107-113 DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2014.01.002
Image: Hicks et al. (2014)