Endangered chimpanzees focus of urgent action

September 04, 2002

Abidjan, Ivory Coast -- Endangered with imminent extinction, Africa's western chimpanzee is the focus of an urgent action plan to be announced Sept. 13 by an international group of scientists and government officials meeting in Abidjan.

The plan will be finalized during a two-day conference at the Golf Hotel, Sept 12 and 13, with chimp conservation experts from Africa, the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Portugal. Cote d'Ivoire's Prime Minister Affi N'Guessan is scheduled to speak during the morning opening session Sept. 12.

The meeting is co-sponsored by the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science (CABS) and the West Africa Program at Conservation International (CI), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Great Ape Survival Project, and the Primate Action Fund. It is being co-organized by CI, the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation, and Kyoto University. Its goal is to reach a consensus among government officials, researchers, protected area managers and private conservation groups to take specific steps to halt or reverse the decline in chimpanzee numbers in West Africa.

"We stand to lose one of the human species closest relatives, as well as a species with one of the most fascinating and complex social systems in the Animal Kingdom," said Dr. Tetsuro Matsuzawa of Kyoto University, who runs one of the longest-term studies of chimpanzees in Africa.

"When I started 22 years ago to work in the Taï forest, the last hundred kilometers were through a vegetation green tunnel. Today you have to drive all the way to the national park limits to see the first patch of forest. The trend has been the same throughout West African forest regions, " said Christophe Boesch, of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Threats include agricultural development, logging and hunting for meat and for pest control, for the pet trade and historically for biomedical research.

Bush meat trade in chimp meat is a serious problem also because of severe health risks posed to humans who eat chimpanzee meat. Several cases of the deadly Ebola virus in humans has been directly traced to infected chimpanzees in West Africa. Chimpanzees in Central Africa are also believed to have been the source of the HIV virus in humans. Because humans and chimps are so similar, they also share many diseases. The report points out that most infectious agents affecting great apes can affect humans and vice versa, with more than 140 such diseases shared by both.

"In West Africa, people rely more heavily on bush meat for food than in many other regions of the world. Chimps are particularly vulnerable because they are so slow to reproduce, and they are conspicuous and easy to hunt," said Dr. Rebecca Kormos, CABS research fellow.

The western chimpanzee, one of four subspecies of the common chimpanzee, has already disappeared from three countries -- Benin, the Gambia and Togo -- and is almost extinct in four other countries -- Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea Bissau and Senegal. Current estimates of western chimpanzee populations are at about 4 percent of an original 600,000 across its range of 13 West African countries.

The majority of western chimpanzees are found in a region known as the Guinean Forest of West Africa, designated as one of the world's 25 biodiversity hotspots. These 25 hotspots cover just 1.4 percent of the Earth's land; yet claim more than 60 percent of the total terrestrial species diversity.

The action plan provides the most recent data on the conservation status of chimpanzees in West Africa and their behavior and ecology. Other sections detail threats, infectious diseases, and specific country reports.

"It's no coincidence that urgent conservation action is necessary for a primate species found within the Guinean Forest Hotspot, which is one of the top five hotspots for endangered primates on Earth," said Russell A. Mittermeier, CI President and United Nations Environment Programme Special Envoy for the Great Apes Survival Project. "Chimpanzees are an important flagship species for this important region and their fate mirrors much of what is in store for the vast range of species diversity found there."

Conservation International

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