Magazine article Geographical

Doing Things Differently: Uganda's Remote Chimpanzee Communities Have Provided Scientists with Fascinating New Insights into the Behaviour of Our Closest Cousins. Christian Amodeo Visited Two Very Different Protected Chimp Groups to Witness the Groundbreaking Research Taking Place

Magazine article Geographical

Doing Things Differently: Uganda's Remote Chimpanzee Communities Have Provided Scientists with Fascinating New Insights into the Behaviour of Our Closest Cousins. Christian Amodeo Visited Two Very Different Protected Chimp Groups to Witness the Groundbreaking Research Taking Place

Article excerpt

With the sun dropping fast, the failing light, which is already heavily diffused beneath the canopy, begins to play tricks. Dense foliage crowds our narrow jungle path. Little diverts our attention from our fatigue, the heat and the incessant high-pitched insect whine except perhaps the occasional contingent of giant biting ants.

Our party of six has walked for hours without spotting a single wild chimpanzee in the Mugiri riverine forest, part of a 30-kilometre network of densely vegetated gorges winding through the Semliki Wildlife Reserve. Although gazetted in 1932, making it Uganda's first protected area, incredibly, its four groups of chimpanzees remained undiscovered until 1993.

I was beginning to appreciate how this was possible; the chimpanzees were proving to be almost as elusive as Ptolemy's Mountains of the Moon. These wild 'savannah chimps' haven't yet been habituated--that is, become used to having humans around through repeated contact. And the difference between the habituated and even partially habituated can mean a chimp sitting on the ground in a relaxed, unruffled manner not ten metres away from you, and what was proving to be a fruitless jungle hike. Disappointed and tired, we vote to head for home.

And that's when we hear it; the whoop and screech is unmistakable. With a crash of branches, a chimpanzee appears, standing semi-erect, high up in the canopy just a couple of hundred metres away. The near-silhouette peers in our direction, probably sizing us up as we clamour excitedly for binoculars. Then, suddenly, with a less-than-graceful, albeit effective, double-legged bound, the chimpanzee disappears from view.

We're left to pick out a series of violent branch-shaking crash landings that diminish with every leap, like ever-smaller splashes of a skimming stone on a dark lake. The encounter was fleeting yet exhilarating.

More or less?

Current estimates put the World's total Wild chimpanzee population at between 100,000 and 150,000, distributed through 21 African countries. Although only a small number--nearly 5,000--are found in Uganda, groundbreaking research and some unusual behaviour have made the country an important centre for expanding our knowledge of our closest cousin.

This figure of 5,000 chimps is from a 2002 Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) and Wildlife Conservation Society census, the first of its kind in the country and more accurate than the Uganda Wildlife Authority's (UWA) estimate of 4,000. The government agency welcomed the sudden 'rise' in numbers as evidence of a thriving chimpanzee population; however, not everyone was convinced.

"I would say the chimp population is going down, not up," says Debby Cox, the executive director of JGI-Uganda. "They are relatively safe in the major protected areas, but outside we are losing them." Cox estimates that between 200 and 400 chimps live in private forests, "which are being cut as we speak", and between five and ten crop-raiding chimps are killed by farmers each year.

Cox believes that it was the government's "gross underestimation" of the chimp population in Kibale Forest National Park that accounted for the apparent population growth. "In 1997, they thought there were around 700 chimps in Kibale," she says. "In our census, we estimated 1,300 chimps. This is due to Kibale having an unusually high population density--much higher than any other forest in Uganda." The latest figure is 1,450 chimpanzees living in 12 communities, three of which are fully habituated.

Cousins in the comfort zone

Covering some 76,600 hectares and situated 300 kilometres from the capital, Kampala, Kibale Forest National Park is both rich and varied, comprising dense forests, swamps and grasslands, and boasting some 250 tree species, 325 including the forest elephant. Gazetted in 1993, it claims the world's highest density of primates--including galagos, bushbabies, red and black-and-white colobus and red-tailed monkeys--making it one of Uganda's primary tourist attractions. …

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