Experts say Liberia’s chimps could go extinct

Monrovia – Dalida squirms on the lap of a woman at a restaurant bar on Tubman Boulevard.

(See original post here.)

The young chimpanzee was captured just two weeks after her birth. Now four weeks old she wears diapers and a T-shirt instead of sleeping with her mom tonight in a tree in Liberia’s fast-diminishing jungle rainforest.

Dalida’s parents were killed for bush meat and the babies snatched to be sold for money by a hunter in northern Lofa County.

A South African woman who prefers to stay anonymous because of the anger her actions provoke, bought Deledda and another baby chimpanzee for US $375. She now plays the role of Dalida’s “mother”.

“She gets fed. She goes to sleep. She wakes up, wants a bottle,” says the South African woman. “She wants love, that’s the most important thing. She has been taken away from her biological mom; all of a sudden a human being has become her mom.”

Dalida is one of many young chimpanzees in Liberia living in towns and cities with human beings, after their parents died at human hands.

The killing of chimpanzees by hunters picked up dramatically during Liberia’s war and has become a way of life for many hunters. That has had devastating consequences for the chimpanzee population and for Liberia’s environment going forward according to conservation experts.

Preliminary estimates suggest there are just 5000 chimpanzees in Liberia, far fewer than expected given Liberia’s vast forest according to Jessi Junker, a researcher from the Max Planck Institute who has recently completed a project to count the number of remaining chimpanzees and other wildlife in Liberia. Half West Africa’s remaining forest cover is found in Liberia so the loss of species in this country can have serious consequences for the region.

Junker’s team is currently analysing the data trying to figure out whether factors such as poverty, lack of education, lack of law enforcement, lack of sufficient non-bushmeat protein sources and tradition are responsible for the intensive hunting. But one thing she does know, she says, is that, “If hunting is not controlled in the near future, many wildlife populations in the country, including chimpanzees, may go locally extinct,” Junker says.

The loss of a single species such as chimpanzees can have far wider impact according to Dr. Tina Vogs, technical advisor of Bio Monitoring and Research at Fauna and Flora International. She says little Deledda would played a part in the growth of certain plants in the forest that feed many other animals and even humans.

“Chimpanzees are very important to the eco-system; they eat fruits and nuts. They are seed dispersers; that mean they will distribute seeds of trees to different areas in the forest,” says Dr. Vogs.

Without them many plants and animals that the forest depends on will disappear. The long term that damage to the forest could impact many indigenous people who depend on it for food, medicine and shelter.

Experts worry the government has not taken the issue seriously and has in fact, put large parts of Liberia’s remaining virgin rainforest at risk.  A September 2012 report by international environmental watchdogs Global Witness, Save My Future Foundation and Liberia’s Sustainable Development Institute, says Liberia has sold 40 percent of its forests for logging, mining and oil palm in just two years. The report says the highly concentrated parts of Liberia’s forest risk being flatten by foreign companies.

“Deforestation is the biggest foe because they have sold the land to palm oil and mining companies; the loss of the forest implies that they [wildlife] will go extinct,” says Dr. Vogs. If nothing is done to reverse government action the future looks bleak she says, “for not only chimpanzees but also wild life in general; because the bigger species are always the first to disappear.”

Experts say expatriates like Dalida’s mother are part of the problem. They find chimps living in horrible conditions, malnourished and traumatized and think buying them is the best thing for the individual chimp.

But by creating a market for baby chimps they are encouraging sellers to go and kill more mothers in order to get baby chimps to sell creating a bigger problem down the road.

Dalida’s parents were killed for bush meat and the babies snatched to be sold for money by a hunter in northern Lofa County. A South African woman who prefers to stay anonymous because of the anger her actions provoke, bought Dalida and another baby chimpanzee for US $375. She now plays the role of Dalida’s “mother”.
“I often hear people say that they “tried to rescue the animal” or “saved the animal’s live”, says Junker.”

“While I am sure that such actions are well intended; I do feel the need to explain to people that this is illegal according to Liberian law as well as ethically and morally wrong.”

Dr. Vogs says taking chimpanzees out of their original environment poses serious risks to their survival.

“A wild animal belongs to the forest; it cannot survive in our human environment,” she says.

“You might not see directly but it will be emotionally very disturbed; it will suffer also physically from the wrong food,” says Dr. Vogs.

And while chimps may be small and cute when young they can grow up to be large and strong and a danger to their human owners. A pet chimp in the US ripped off the face of a family friend a few years ago.

Tourism Potential Slipping Away

About two hours away from Monrovia, 60 adult chimpanzees move about small islands known as “Monkey Islands” by the Farmington River behind the Roberts International Airport. The mangroves by the river shake as chimpanzees move passed them.

Caretakers chuck several pounds of fruit and vegetables to the chimps from the safety of their boats, yards away from the islands. They say it’s dangerous to get too close.

The chimps make fidgeting sounds as many more come to be fed as part of their retirement benefits after they were used for research studies by the New York Blood Center. The chimps made a special contribution to humanity as a major factor in the discovery of a vaccine for Hepatitis B.

Experts worry the government has not taken the issue seriously and has in fact, put large parts of Liberia’s remaining virgin rainforest at risk. Eight years after the end of fighting remaining staff here run a small tourism business bringing foreign workers to see them.

Some of the money made goes to buying food for the chimps.  J. Abayomi  Zeonyuway, Co-Director of the Hepatitis B Virus Lab says he would like to see this opportunity developed into a fully-fledged tourism business for Liberia.

“About 20 visitors come here every month, in the dry season the number can be more, “ he says.”

“If the Liberian Government can sit on a round table with the New York Blood Center and discuss tourism, we will make more money to be able to feed them. Tourism is a good idea”.

Other African countries such as Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya make millions of dollars from tourists coming to see wild animals including apes.

So far Liberia has done nothing to exploit that. Experts worry before that tourism potential is realized, the chimpanzee population may have disappeared.

Tecee Boley is a fellow of New Narratives – Africans Reporting Africa, a project that supports independent media in Africa. Please see more at www.newnarratives.org

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