- Pygmy chimpanzees or bonobos may have been hunted so extensively that the survival of the species is at risk, environmentalists are warning. The bonobos are said to be our closest relative, and are found only in the heart of Africa's Congo Basin. A survey suggests there are very few bonobos still alive.
The bonobo is much less widespread than the closely related and better known chimpanzee. It lives in a few refuges in Congo Kinshasa (DRC) just south of the Congo River - in a mix of forest, swamp and grassland habitats - and is considered one of the most endangered apes in the world. Scientists had estimated the bonobo population to be perhaps as high as 50,000.
However, preliminary results of the first systematic survey of a known bonobo stronghold indicate that may be an over-estimation. The survey was conducted in the 36,000 km2 Salonga National Park in central Congo Kinshasa, a protected area the size of Holland.
The first data in from about a third of the park shows evidence of very few bonobos living there. No bonobos were encountered, and sightings of nests and dung were only made in a quarter of the area surveyed, at lower densities than previously measured, according to reports from the environmentalist group WWF.
In contrast, there was abundant evidence of human encroachment into the park and of poaching. WWF today stated it hoped to be able to establish a clearer picture of how many bonobos are left in the wild once all of the results of the survey have been compiled and analysed early next year.
- These initial results concern us greatly, said Peter Stephenson of WWF's African Great Apes Programme. "Salonga National Park was created in 1970 specifically to safeguard the species and potentially represents the largest, undisturbed and protected habitat for the bonobo. If things are this bad here, we can assume that across the Congo, bonobos are in crisis," he added.
The survey of Salonga National Park was undertaken by the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) and the Wildlife Conservation Society and supported by WWF. It was conducted as part of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) programme for Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE). As with the bonobo estimates, the survey recorded lower elephant numbers than expected.
During the long running civil war in Congo Kinshasa, it became almost impossible for ICCN to protect effectively the country's national parks. Increased poaching by armed militias and local people was inevitable with serious consequences for the bonobos of Salonga as well as the local people.
- WWF has now launched a new project to monitor and protect surviving bonobo populations in the northern sector of Salonga National Park, the group today announced. It is providing park staff and researchers with training and equipment as well as supporting anti-poaching operations on foot and by boat to stop the illegal killing of the rare apes.
The project to protect the park's bonobo population is being implemented by ICCN and the Zoological Society of Milwaukee (USA) in partnership with WWF's Salonga Landscape Programme. "The war has had terrible consequences for the people and wildlife of the Congo Basin," said Lisa Steel, coordinator of WWF's Salonga Landscape Programme.
- However, now, as the Democratic Republic of Congo rebuilds socially and economically, the opportunity is there to make sure that forest conservation benefits not only wildlife but also local people, Ms Steel added.
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