Living on the Brink
Local school children watch as adult males Sylvester and Keeta cross the main road
Meet “The Bulindi Survivors” – representative of thousands of other chimps and so in need of the world’s attention – now!
In 2012, chimp researcher Matt McLennan returned to Uganda after a four-year absence to resume his study of a community of chimpanzees living in small forest fragments in Bulindi, Uganda. Shockingly, the group of about 30 chimps now numbered just 19, almost all of their forest having been converted to farms growing crops like rice and tobacco.
Dr Matt McLennan beneath a chimpanzee night nest at Bulindi.
In 2006, Dr Matt McLennan began a two-year study of chimpanzees living in an unprotected forest amidst a rapidly growing human population. He wanted to learn about their lives in their fast-changing world. The chimpanzees live in Bulindi, an important trading center in western Uganda. The Bulindi chimps are just one of numerous forgotten chimpanzee communities in an area of rapid forest conversion that lies between two large protected areas – the Budongo and Bugoma Forest Reserves.
Tobacco growing on formerly forested land in Bulindi. Across the region farmers are clearing remaining forest in order to plant tobacco and other cash-crops such as rice.
Matt’s study revealed that the chimps were at great risk as their last bits of forest are rapidly converted to farmland. Like thousands of African chimpanzees in similar circumstances, the Bulindi chimps were eking out an existence in tiny, shrinking forest fragments – small islands amidst an expanding sea of farmland and villages. The chimps’ forest was being logged relentlessly and cleared by local farmers to plant their crops.
Adult male caught in a ‘mantrap’, 2011. Vets removed the trap (which he had dragged around for a week) and treated him, but sadly, this male was missing when research resumed in 2012 and likely died of infection caused by the trap (Photo courtesy of the Jane Goodall Institute, Uganda)
Unable to find sufficient food in the forest, the chimps began raiding farmers’ crops for food. As a result, many local farmers became hostile towards these ‘crop pests,’ and conflicts between people and chimps became commonplace. Some farmers used dogs to drive the chimps away from their gardens; others put large steel traps around their crops to protect their livelihoods. In turn, the adult male chimps became aggressive towards people, frightening many villagers.
In 2012, Matt returned to Bulindi to resume the study and to see how the chimps have fared in his 4-year absence. The changes were “shocking.” Almost all the forest had been cleared for agriculture, particularly for cash crops such as rice and tobacco, which local farmers sell to multinational companies. Even the remaining forest patches were so heavily logged that few large trees still stood. These deteriorating circumstances are mirrored throughout the wider region, where unknown numbers of chimpanzees are similarly suffering at the hands of their human relatives.
The Bulindi community has declined in size from approximately 30–35 members in 2007 to its current size of 19 individuals in 2013. We can’t be certain of the reasons for this decline, but it’s likely that at least some chimps fell victim to traps or else were killed in retaliation for crop-raiding. These Bulindi chimps live a very different life compared to those in larger protected forests. Each day they run the risk of hostile encounters with humans and dogs as they search for food, crossing roads and busy footpaths. Each day they hear the sound of chainsaws and falling trees, and each day a little bit more of their forest home disappears forever.
And yet, miraculously, most of the chimps have survived – and there is reason for hope. Most of the adult females have young infants and a new generation of youngsters is growing up and adapting to a new set of circumstances. And even though many of the local people are poor and needing to farm in order to survive, many of them are sympathetic to the chimps’ plight and are keen to find a solution. Conservation organizations the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust (www.ngambaisland.org) and the Jane Goodall Institute (www.janegoodall.org) are currently working with local households in the region to promote more positive attitudes towards chimps and develop alternative livelihood strategies to clearing forest.
There are almost 300 chimpanzees living in similar desperate circumstances and at immediate risk within this 50 km corridor of land, and thousands more in other areas of Africa. And those not yet inundated by forest loss will be facing similar problems soon until solutions are found.
Typical view inside a forest fragment in Bulindi. All remaining forest has been heavily logged. The felled tree was an important food source for the chimps.
Follow along now with ChimpSaver.org by clicking here to get to know these 19 survivors. Learn what you can do to ensure that they survive. We’ll also post about the Bulindi Survivors on Facebook. Or sign-up at “Join the Community” to receive the latest updates from ChimpSaver.org. Become a part of a web community as we look for solutions for these and other chimpanzees that are living on the edge every day.
Mr Tom Sabiiti, research assistant and local ambassador for the Bulindi chimps
Follow Dr. McLennan, working with local field assistant Tom Sabiiti, at Updates From Bulindi to get the latest information on these chimps and their plight.