Thursday, June 14, 2007

Ugandan chimps threatened by massive felling of forests

From IANS/ June 12, 2007:
Somewhere in the remote jungles of western and northwestern Uganda, a struggle for survival reigns between the impoverished peasants and chimpanzees.

Ecologists here are worried that the already endangered primates are losing the battle for land in a country where forests are being decimated at a fast rate.

The chimps are either killed, wounded, left homeless or orphaned and multi-pronged efforts are being made by conservationists to both save the habitat of the chimps and protect those orphaned or displaced.

'We are very concerned about the habitat of the primates. People cut down the forests for gardens and timber and the chimps get displaced. The chimps fight and the humans fight back and the chimps are either killed or orphaned,' said Moses Mapesa, executive director of the state-owned Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA).

Uganda has over 5,000 chimps in the wild and those threatened are mostly in privately owned forests in the Bunyoro region in north and northwestern Uganda.

UWA rescues the abandoned and orphaned chimps and hands them over to ecologists at Ngamba Chimpanzee Sanctuary situated on an island on Lake Victoria.

The wooded island situated 60 km south of the capital Kampala, is at present home to 42 rescued chimps.

The centre funded by international conservation groups and the Ugandan government was founded in 1998 but ecologists there are worried that the number of chimps being orphaned and taken there for refuge is on the increase.

The sanctuary's executive director, Lillian Ajerova, said some of the big forests, which existed before have been cut down or become fragmented with the chimps finding themselves in different locations.

'At the moment we have 42 chimps at Ngamba Island. These include 17 males. The oldest chimp is 25 years and the youngest about a year. There is an indication that the number of orphaned chimps is on the increase,' she said.

'In 1998, we started with 19 chimps. Now we have 42 and in the last year we got five chimps that had been rescued. This is a very, very big number, which we got in only a period of six months. This shows that the problem is getting bigger,' Ajerova said.

Statistics from the National Forest Authority (NFA) indicate that Uganda's forest cover has been reduced from 4.9 million hectares to 3.6 million hectares from 1990 to 2005.

Forests cover 24 percent of the East African country's total land surface to-date, a fall from over 70 percent 100 years ago, NFA says.

Environmentalists are embarking on a programme among the people living around the chimpanzee areas, sensitising them on conservation, advising them on the crops to grow and empowering them with skills.

'We are trying to see how we can move together to minimize the problem. Among others, this involves education and provision of skills to women,' Ajerova said.

'We want to address the problem in such a way that the humans co-exist with the chimps,' said Mapesa.