The Bulindi Chimpanzee & Community Project: The first 18 months and future goals
Matt watching chimpanzees at Bulindi
By Dr. Matt McLennan, Director, Bulindi Chimpanzee and Community Project
It’s been a hugely exciting and productive 18 months since we launched the Bulindi Chimpanzee & Community Project (BCCP) back in April last year! For readers unfamiliar with the project’s background, it was conceived to try to halt and reverse the downward spiral of forest clearance and human–wildlife conflict, threatening the immediate survival of chimpanzees at Bulindi and surrounding areas.
In this part of western Uganda, at least 9 or 10 groups (called ‘communities’) of wild chimpanzees, numbering at least 260 individuals, have the misfortune to live outside of any formal protected area. Instead, they eke out a living in shrinking forest fragments – small islands in an expanding sea of agriculture. In the last two decades, local people – who live in poverty – cut down most of the forests to plant crops and to make a little money from timber and agriculture, which they use to build simple homes, buy basic commodities and send their kids to school – things that most of us take for granted. Unsurprisingly, this extensive deforestation led to escalating conflict between people and resident chimpanzees over space and food.
Chimpanzees in Bulindi are one of these imperilled chimp communities. Over 10 years I’ve followed this small family of chimpanzees, which currently numbers 22 members (a slight increase from previous years thanks to a recent, much-needed ‘baby boom’). During those same 10 years, more than 80% of their forest home was cut down and replaced by farmland. Researching the lives of the chimps has shone a spotlight on the immense pressure which they and other chimp groups in this region face from their human neighbours. At the same time, becoming involved in village life and learning about the constraints local people face in their daily lives, convinced me that efforts to conserve the chimpanzees and remaining forest had to start with support for local households.
We launched a pilot project at Bulindi in April 2015 thanks to many kind and generous individuals and organizations that contributed funds, and we can now evaluate BCCP’s progress and achievements to date, and look forward to the future.
It’s with great pleasure that I can report our first 18 months have been a great success! Our approach is novel, but simple. Since local villagers are poor and clear forest to raise cash and for wood, we offered to sponsor schoolchildren to help households meet one of their primary expenses, alongside an extensive tree planting program. When we began in May 2015, 14 forest-owning households agreed to participate; over the course of the first year this number grew steadily to 22. These 22 forest-owning households collectively own about 90% of the forest in Bulindi!
Currently, we’re sponsoring 33 schoolchildren and college students. Additionally, we helped forest owners purchase livestock (pigs, cows) and bicycles, and helped another 5 households purchase construction materials to build their homes.
Andrew, one of the school fees beneficiaries who came to work in the project’s tree nursery (in the background) during school holidays. Andrew recently finished his “O” level and passed with flying colors!
Deborah, a forest owner in Bulindi, with her son and daughter who are sponsored by BCCP
The project’s tree nursery forms the ‘epicenter’ for our activities in Bulindi. To date, we’ve raised more than 200,000 tree seedlings in the nursery. These have been distributed freely to households from villages throughout the Bulindi area and include native trees for forest enrichment (including fruit trees that chimps like to eat), fast-growing exotics for household woodlots, and coffee – a major cash crop – to boost local incomes.
Thousands of coffee seedlings in BCCP’s nursery, ready for distribution to local farmers
The tree nursery is a source of employment for many people from local households
A forest owner standing alongside a native Maesopsis sapling – now 1 year old – which he planted at the forest edge. Eventually, such trees will increase the size of the forest area.
BCCP staff at the tree nursery. Moses (right) is the project manager and Patrick (left) looks after the seedlings.
One of the energy-saving stoves constructed for local households, lit in preparation for cooking
We also constructed energy-saving stoves in 50 local households (with more planned for next year). These stoves help households reduce their fuel consumption and greatly lessen the need to cut trees in the forest for cooking.
Participation in the project is of course voluntary; we only request that participating households refrain from cutting more of their forest and instead help us plant trees. As indicated above, the tree planting program has been going well. But how has the remaining natural forest fared? I’m very pleased to report that none of the participating forest owners cut more trees in their forest since the project started – which is about as strong a measure of progress that we could hope for! In addition, participating households have expressed great enthusiasm for the project’s continuation. We have prioritized building good relationships with the local community and I believe this approach has helped the success of the pilot project.
Tom, BCCP’s long-term chimp and forest monitor, with children from forest-owning households in Bulindi
Overall, our experience at Bulindi in these first 18 months demonstrates that the project’s approach can be successful at halting deforestation and gaining support of the local community.
Our aim for the next year is to double our impact by expanding BCCP to a second, nearby site to help a second community of wild chimpanzees and support local households there too. At Wagaisa (about 10 miles from Bulindi), a resident group of about 35 chimpanzees are similarly affected by rapid habitat loss and rising conflict with local villagers, and conservation action is urgently required. At the same time, BCCP will continue working in Bulindi, supporting local households, planting more trees and monitoring the progress of the remarkable Bulindi chimps!
Chimpanzee mother Teddy with her young son Ally at Bulindi