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Huge chimpanzee population thriving in remote Congo forest

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Huge chimpanzee population thriving in remote Congo forest” was written by Damian Carrington, for theguardian.com on Friday 7th February 2014 11.53 UTC

In one of the most dangerous regions of the planet, against all odds, a huge yet mysterious population of chimpanzees appears to be thriving – for now. Harboured by the remote and pristine forests in the north of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and on the border of the Central African Republic, the chimps were completely unknown until recently – apart from the local legends of giant apes that ate lions and howled at the moon.

But researchers who trekked thousands of kilometres through uncharted territory and dodged armed poachers and rogue militia, now believe the group are one of the last thriving chimp “mega-cultures”.

“This is one of the few places left on Earth with a huge continuous population of chimps,” says Cleve Hicks, a primatologist based at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, who says the group is probably the largest in Africa. “We estimate many thousands of individuals, perhaps tens of thousands.” A unique set of customs and behaviour is shared by the apes across a vast area of 50,000 sq km, revealing how they live naturally.

The unusually large chimps of the Bili-Uele forest have been seen feasting on leopard and build ground nests far more often than other chimps, as well as having a unique taste for giant African snails, whose shells they appear to pound open on rocks or logs. Motion-activated video cameras left in the forest for eight months also recorded gangs of males patrolling their territory and mothers showing their young how to use tools to eat swarming insects – although the footage did not confirm the lunar howls.

The camera traps also revealed an extraordinary range of other forest dwellers, including forest elephants, olive baboons, spotted hyena as well as red river and giant forest hogs, crested guinea fowl and aardvark. “We saw incredible amounts of wildlife on our camera traps, but we did not catch a single film of a human,” says Hicks. “It remains one of the last untouched wildernesses in Africa.”

One camera even recorded its own destruction as it came under attack from a leopard, but all two dozen cameras were nearly lost when poachers invaded the area and burned the researchers’ camp. Only a swift two-day rescue mission retrieved the footage.

Hick’s team first identified the existence of the Bili chimps in 2007 but their new survey, published this week in the journal Biological Conservation, reveals a vast, thriving mega-culture. Elsewhere in Africa, human damage has fragmented the continent’s chimp population from many millions to just a few hundred thousand over the last century.

However, while the chimp numbers have apparently remained stable, the numbers of forest elephants have crashed by half due to poaching. The slaughter, to feed the highly lucrative illegal ivory trade, mirrors the bloody picture across central Africa, where two-thirds of all forest elephants have been killed in the last decade. “We found the burned skulls of a mother and baby skull at a poachers camp,” says Hicks.

 

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