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Tuesday, 17 September, 2002, 19:07 GMT 20:07 UK
Ape alarm in West Africa
Chimpanzees
The chimpanzees of West Africa are under threat

The chimpanzees of West Africa are under threat.

Hunting for bushmeat, logging and human encroachment are all reducing their numbers to dangerously low levels.

One of mankind's closest living relatives is in danger of being wiped out by its evolutionary cousin.


There are some estimates that chimpanzees as well as gorillas could disappear from the forests of large parts of Africa within the next 10 to 20 years

Tom Butynski, ape expert

When you see a mother chimp with its offspring it looks for all the world like a woman with her spoilt little child. But it is actually becoming an increasingly rare sight - western chimpanzees in the West African forest.

The mother peels fruit for an impatient youngster sitting on the floor beside her. The youngster beats its hands on the ground and wails at its mother, pleading with her to go faster.

Disappearing apes

The western chimpanzee is one of the four sub-species of chimps.

It is estimated that there used to be 600,000 of them across western Africa, but there are now as few as 25,000 and they are endangered.

"We really don't know what the rate of decline is at the present time, but we know that it is a high rate," Tom Butynski of Conservation International told me.

"There are some estimates that chimpanzees as well as gorillas could disappear from the forests of large parts of Africa within the next 10 to 20 years."

Along with 80 other chimpanzee experts, Tom Butynski has come to the Ivory Coast for a conference to try to find ways to slow the decline of the western chimpanzee.

Bushmeat

The scientists have drawn up an urgent action plan to try to save one of mankind's closest living relatives from extinction.

They have agreed to co-ordinate their work and to concentrate their greatest efforts at conservation where the number of chimpanzees is highest and the forest is best preserved.

The jungle straddling the border between Ivory Coast and Liberia is one of the seven sites chosen, but an expert on the Liberian apes, Alex Peal, says even there the threat to chimpanzees is great.

"We have done studies of distribution, that's why we know they are present in all the main forest areas," Alex says.

"Logging actually fragments the forest, and that is a very, very serious threat.

"They separate populations and then people come in and create a bigger fragmentation by living in the corridor areas. They can threaten the survival of the species."

African rainforest
African tropical forests are disappearing fast

But the logging of forests or the clearing areas for farming and settlements is not the only danger to the chimpanzees which are left.

Hunting is claiming large numbers too.

Hunting chimps to take as pets has decreased in recent years because international laws have made it hard to move live the animals across borders.

Andrew Plumptre of the Wildlife Conservation Society says hunting chimps as food for the lucrative bushmeat trade is on the increase.

"People have caught ebola from eating chimpanzees before," he warned, "but it's a delicacy as well, people like it, and people have even found gorillas (being eaten) in Belgium and I know of cases in London that bushmeat has been turning up at Heathrow."

The Wildlife Conservation Society has projects in many countries, trying to encourage the protection of chimpanzees.

They are campaigning for outright bans in some places and for hunting-free zones in other forests, to allow the chimpanzees to breed and to thrive.

Hunting monkeys

In the small group of chimpanzees I watched, the male claps his hands to attract attention.

There are a huge number of similarities between chimpanzees and people.

We share almost 99% of our genetic make-up.

They argue and then make up, and they grieve for their dead.

We have another thing in common, the chimps hunt in groups for meat and they are helping to push the endangered red colobus monkey towards extinction.

The difference between our two species is that they have no idea of what they are doing - and so there is nothing they can do about it.


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See also:

03 Sep 02 | Africa
03 Apr 02 | Science/Nature
27 Aug 02 | Correspondent
25 Aug 02 | Science/Nature
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