New Population of Eastern Chimpanzees Discovered in Remote Congolese Mountain Forests



Chimpanzé regarde dans le camera
New Population of Eastern Chimpanzees Discovered in Remote Congolese Mountain Forests
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Reinout Verbeke

A Belgian-Congolese research team has discovered and documented a community of eastern chimpanzees in three small mountain forests in eastern Congo, near Lake Albert. They counted 283 chimpanzee nests in 18 km2 of forest, and estimate that there are 4,6 chimpanzees per km2. The eastern chimpanzee is endangered. More and more forest is turned into agricultural land. The researchers propose authorities to protect these relict mountain forests in the Albertine Rift and involving local communities from the start.

In East-Congo, in the Province of Ituri, near Lake Albert, lies a mosaic of 20 small montane forests fragments, comprising a total surface of 70 km2. This patchwork of forests is called the RAFALE landscape (Relict Altitude Forests Fragments of the Albert Lake Escarpment). In three selected forest fragments, 18 km2 in total, a Belgian and Congolese research team discovered and documented a surviving community of eastern chimpanzees. The eastern chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) is an endangered subspecies.

Touching Discovery

In 2015 biologist Anne Laudisoit (University of Antwerp and now EcoHealth Alliance) was doing research on infectious diseases in the area, when she and local guide Otis Kpanyogo heard chimpanzee cries in a very small patch of forest.

In the two following years she led several multinational expedition teams to observe the chimpanzee population. With camera traps the researchers documented 42 weaned chimpanzees and 10 infants. They walked transects - routes along which observations are made - and counted the chimpanzee nests: 283 in 18 km2. In this way they could estimate the chimpanzee density in those three isolated forests: about 4,6 chimpanzees per km2. That’s more than in comparable forest patches in other regions.

‘Having these unknown and undocumented chimpanzees in front of you, and on camera, was just an incredible discovery, and touched every team member’, says Anne Laudisoit, who – together with photojournalist Caroline Thirion – produced a documentary about the chimpanzee community, entitled: Mbudha, in the chimpanzees footsteps.

Protecting Chimpanzees

This RAFALE chimpanzee community, including the Mbudha community in the three forests investigated, is endangered as more and more forest is turned into agricultural land – by slash-and-burn – to grow cassava, groundnuts, beans, maize and sorghum and feed the densely populated communities in the area.

The authors of this study hope that authorities will recognize the RAFALE landscape as a new Chimpanzee Conservation Unit. They would like to see local communities assisted in the design of a sustainable conservation plan for the benefit of both people and wildlife. ‘These small forests are sacks full of life’, says biologist Erik Verheyen (University of Antwerp and Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences). ‘The protection of this area would also help the conservation of the vulnerable Oustalet’s red colobus monkey and the endangered pangolins as well as 26 other mammal species we recorded in this area.’

The study of the Mbudha chimpanzees and their habitat has only just begun. This Spring 2021, Laudisoit (funded by a National Geographic Grant to pursue the explorations) and a team of biologists are undertaking a new expedition to the area and already observed another 15 chimpanzees. One of the goals is to understand how the Mbudha population is genetically connected to or isolated from others in the region.

The Congolese and Belgian researchers involved in this study published their results in the journal Conservation Science and Practice. The team consisted of biologists from Kisangani University (UNIKIS), Centre de Surveillance de la Biodiversité (CSB), Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), University of Antwerp (UAntwerp), Antwerp Zoo Centre for Research and Conservation (CRC), Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) and EcoHealth Alliance.

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