Site update

Since I have been really terrible at updating the blog (but pretty good at keeping up with the facebook blog posts) I've added the widget below so that facebook cross posts to the blog.

You shouldn't need to join facebook but can just click on the links in the widget to access the articles. If you have any problems or comments please mail me at arandjel 'AT'

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Newsweek's 10 Hottest Nerds: (NOT SURPRISINGLY) Svante Paabo

Article from Newsweek
(photo from my personal collection)

The 10 Hottest Nerds
Oct 15, 2007 Issue

The revolution in physics in the 20th century rested disproportionately on the accomplishments of a handful of scientists (Albert Einstein comes to mind) who supplied key insights at just the right moments. The current explosion of discoveries in the biological sciences is no different. NEWSWEEK ASKED 10 of the most esteemed biologists where they think the revolution is taking us. Which among them will turn out to be the Einsteins of the 21st century? You decide.

Svante Paabo
Director of evolutionary genetics, Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany.

NEWSWEEK: You are trying to sequence the genome of a Neanderthal. Why?
Paabo: The genetic differences we find between humans and our closest relative—who happens to be extinct—will tell us how fully modern humans were able to spread over the world, develop technology, start producing art, and so on. By sequencing the genome we will be able to make a catalogue of all the genetic changes that happened in our ancestors after we separated from Neanderthals, and this will help scientists identify which genetic differences are unique to modern humans.

NEWSWEEK: This a good time to be a biologist.
Paabo: It's certainly an extremely exciting time to be a biologist. We've seen the determination of the first genomes of single individuals by Craig Venter and James Watson, and this is just the beginning of the determination of many hundreds of thousands of individual genomes. This will vastly increase our abilities to look for genetic contributions to diseases and other human traits.

NEWSWEEK: Would you call this a revolution?
Paabo: It is of course always very hard to realize if you are experiencing a revolution when you are in the middle of it. Let's not forget that when we discovered the structure of DNA in the 1950s, which in hindsight we would say was truly revolutionary, it actually took around four years before anybody realized it was important. It may certainly be that we overlook things when we're in the middle of them.
Right now there seems to be a number of simultaneous advances in biomedicine. [But] I would not necessarily say that there is a reason why. At the moment there appears to be some sort of synergy between a number of fields, but this is possibly an illusion.

NEWSWEEK: How could your findings benefit people down the road?
Paabo: In the long run, aspects of what we do might become important medically. It may be that we can understand, for example, human speech and how language evolved. This could enable us to understand and eventually treat language problems more efficiently. That may also be true for things such as autism, and other diseases that seem to be specific to humans.

The top 10 hottest nerds are (click here for the full artilce):
* Eric Lander
- Founding director of the Broad Institute, a collaboration between Harvard and MIT

* Leroy Hood
- PRESIDENT of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle

* J. Craig Venter
- Founder, J. Craig Venter Institute

* David Botstein
- Professor of genomics at Princeton University

* Svante Paabo
- Director of evolutionary genetics, Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany.

* Phillip Sharp
- Institute professor, MIT

* Rudolph Jaenisch
- MEMBER, Whitehead Institute, and professor of biology at MIT

- CEO, chairman and co-founder of deCODE Genetics in Reykjavik.

* George Church
- Professor of genetics, Harvard University

* Jay Keasling
- Professor of chemical engineering and bioengineering, University of California, Berkeley

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Neanderthals Had Important Speech Gene, DNA Evidence Shows

from The New York Times

Published: October 19, 2007

Neanderthals, an archaic human species that dominated Europe until the arrival of modern humans some 45,000 years ago, possessed a critical gene known to underlie speech, according to DNA evidence retrieved from two individuals excavated from El Sidron, a cave in northern Spain.

The new evidence stems from analysis of a gene called FOXP2 which is associated with language. The human version of the gene differs at two critical points from the chimpanzee version, suggesting that these two changes have something to do with the fact that people can speak and chimps cannot.

The genes of Neanderthals seemed to have passed into oblivion when they vanished from their last refuges in Spain and Portugal some 30,000 years ago, almost certainly driven to extinction by modern humans. But recent work by Svante Paabo, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has made it clear that some Neanderthal DNA can be extracted from fossils.

Dr. Paabo, Dr. Johannes Krause and Spanish colleagues who excavated the new bones say they have now extracted the Neanderthal version of the relevant part of the FOXP2 gene. It is the same as the human version, they report in today's issue of Current Biology.

Because many other genes are also involved in the faculty of speech, the new finding suggests but does not prove that Neanderthals had human-like language.

"There is no reason to think Neanderthals couldn't speak like humans with respect to FOXP2, but obviously there are many other genes involved in language and speech," Dr. Paabo said.

The human version of the FOXP2 gene apparently swept through the human population before the Neanderthal and modern human lineages split apart some 350,000 years ago.

But until more is known about what FOXP2 does in the brain, it is hard to know what powers were conferred by the sweep, said Gary Marcus, a psychologist at New York University who has written about the evolution of language. "Perhaps Neanderthals had some rudiments of language, but then again, maybe not."

A new strain of mice may have something to say about how FOXP2 affects language. Dr. Paabo has developed mice whose FOXP2 genes have been replaced with the human version. The mice have extra neuronal connections in their brains and make an unusual sound. "There seems to be a change in vocalization — they squeak in a different way," Dr. Paabo said. "But there are no obvious differences in behavior; in most ways they are normal mice."

The ability to fish out a specific gene of interest from the Neanderthal genome is a remarkable technical feat, if that has indeed been achieved. The results "have the potential to become a keystone in our understanding of human evolution," wrote an anonymous referee who reviewed Dr. Paabo's report for Current Biology.

The study of human evolution may take a giant leap forward if Dr. Paabo should recover the entire Neanderthal genome, at least in draft form, a feat he said he hopes to accomplish by next year.

But two sudden clouds have overshadowed this grand prospect. One is that the new finding about FOXP2 sharply contradicts an earlier result Dr. Paabo announced five years ago.

Surveying the human version of FOXP2 in populations around the world, Dr. Paabo found in 2002 that everyone had essentially the same version of the gene. This happens when a new version of a gene confers such a survival advantage that it sweeps through the population. This sweep had occurred sometime within the last 200,000 years, Dr. Paabo and colleagues reported in an article in Nature.

That date supported a proposal by Richard Klein of Stanford University, based on archaeological evidence, that the modern human population had undergone some neurological change around 50,000 years ago, which enabled their populations to expand and emerge from Africa. The neurological change could have been the perfection of modern language, given that few evolutionary advances could be more valuable to a social species.

But Dr. Paabo's new report pushes back the language-related changes in FOXP2 to at least 350,000 years ago, the time that the Neanderthal and modern human lineages split, a date that no longer supports Dr. Klein's thesis.

Pushed by the referees of his new report to say why the old one was so wrong, Dr. Paabo told the editors of Current Biology that the calculations underlying the younger date were "not flawed but rely on assumptions that are necessary but also universally known to be oversimplifications of the reality."

While the assumptions may be well known to population geneticists, the caveats were not so clear to others. Dr. Klein said he was disappointed to have lost the genetic support from Dr. Paabo's work but had not changed his views. "The archaeological record suggests a major change in human behavior 50,000 years ago, and I think there is overwhelming evidence for that."

A second cloud over Dr. Paabo's work with Neanderthal DNA is the ever-present danger of contamination with the human DNA, especially since Dr. Paabo reports finding the human version of FOXP2 in Neanderthal bones.

Most fossil bones in museum collections, and even the chemical reagents used to analyze genetic material, are contaminated with human DNA. The contaminant often overwhelms the faint residual traces of Neanderthal DNA, which is hard at best to tell apart since the sequence of units is so similar.

Dr. Paabo has struggled valiantly to cope with the contamination issue. He has recovered the DNA sequence of Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA, a kind that is separate from the main genome in the cell's nucleus. By measuring the ratio of Neanderthal to human mitochondrial DNA, he can assess the degree of contamination in a sample.

Last year, to lay the groundwork for his analysis of the entire Neanderthal genome, Dr. Paabo decoded the sequence of many DNA fragments, and sent samples to a second laboratory for independent analysis.

This seemed a considerable feat. But in an article soon to be published in the journal PLoS Genetics, Jeffrey D. Wall and Sung K. Kim, two biologists at the University of California, San Francisco, say there are serious inconsistencies between the Neanderthal sequences Dr. Paabo published last year and those of the second laboratory, the Joint Genome Center Institute in Walnut Creek, Calif., headed by Edward M. Rubin.

The bottom line of their analysis is that Dr. Rubin's results were probably correct but Dr. Paabo's were highly contaminated with human DNA.

Dr. Paabo said he agreed in general with Drs. Wall and Kim's criticisms but noted the DNA extracts for both studies had been made in his clean room. He had then sent the samples for his own analysis to another laboratory, where the contamination could perhaps have occurred.

Dr. Paabo has now added extra safeguards, he said, such as tagging all the Neanderthal DNA extracted in his clean room.

For the FOXP2 analysis, he and his Spanish colleagues arranged for the bones to be excavated under sterile conditions and immediately frozen. In addition he analyzed the Neanderthal Y chromosome, showing it was very different from the human Y chromosome, and so provided a second test along with mitochondrial DNA to differentiate human and Neanderthal samples.

Dr. Wall said that in the new report Dr. Paabo and his colleagues "have been much more careful than they were before to control contamination, but I think it still remains a small possibility."

Why was such a striking result not presented to a better known journal such as Nature? Dr. Paabo replied that he had done so, but that "Nature rejected it without review. I was surprised."

FOXP2 first came to light in a large London family, half of whose members had subtle defects in their speech and understanding. Geneticists discovered that one of their two copies of FOXP2 was inactivated by a mutation.

The gene "provides an exciting molecular window into brain circuits that are important in speech," said Simon Fisher of Oxford University, a member of the team that discovered the FOXP2 mutation. Neanderthals and mice are not the only species contributing to the discussion. Echo-locating bats have a distinctive change in their FOXP2 gene at the same location as the human changes. Bats that don't hunt with sonar do not have these changes, a team of Chinese biologists, led by Gang Li and Shuyi Zhang of the East China Normal University in Shanghai, report in the current issue of the journal PLoS One.

This suggests FOXP2 may have evolved in bats to support the rapid motor sequencing involved in echolocation. Similar tweaking of FOXP2 could have occurred in the human lineage to support the fine motor sequencing involved in speech, Dr. Fisher said.

Original Article in Current Biology can be found here

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Bonobo and Chimpanzee Blog

Visit Vanessa Wood's Blog to read her updates while she and other researchers from the MPI-EVA, study chimpanzee and bonobo cognition in sanctuaries across Africa

Click the link to go to the Bonobo Handshake Blog

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Peter Walsh Discusses Great Ape Conservation on Minnesota Public Radio - October 11

(photo from the Princeton Weekly Bulletin)

From the Primate-Science mailing list

On Thursday, October 11, Minnesota Public Radio will host an hour-long program on the worsening situation of the western gorilla, which has been recently reassessed as Critically Endangered. To explore this and related issues in great ape conservation, MPR will be interviewing Peter Walsh of the Max Planck Institute, whose research has documented the severe effects of Ebola on great ape populations, and Michael Hoffmann, a biodiversity analyst with IUCN and a key figure in the recent great apes assessment.

Their discussion will be hosted on MPR's "Midmorning," a live radio program airing every weekday morning. Peter Walsh and Michael Hoffmann will discuss the conservation status of the western gorilla with the host of Midmorning, Kerri Miller, and will also be answering selected listener calls and emails. The program begins at 10:00 am Central Standard Time (GMT -06:00) and will be available through streaming audio on the Midmorning website at

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sign the Petition against Another Sell-Out of British Columbia's Ancient Temperate Rainforests Possible


Rare mountain caribou threatened by further closed door, secret forest negotiations; survival depends upon ending logging in the full range of their ancient temperate rainforest habitat

If you did not like the negotiations that signed away two-thirds of British Columbia's (BC) Great Bear Rainforest for first time industrial logging of priceless ancient temperate rainforests, you will want to know that something even worse is happening in BC, Canada's Inland Temperate Rainforest, home of the world's only mountain caribou. These special caribou are totally dependent upon large areas of intact old-growth forest for their survival. But they are critically endangered and declining rapidly, with only about 1,800 animals left. The reason is that there has been too much logging and road building in their habitat... The caribou spend most of the year at high elevations, but twice each year they must descend to the valley bottoms to find shelter and food in the lush inland temperate rainforest. It is critical to their survival. This forest type contains ancient cedar trees commonly over 500 years old, and a spectacular array of rare and endangered lichens and plants. The cedar trees are storing huge amounts of carbon... The agency is now
conducting backroom negotiations between the timber industry, winter recreationists and businesses, and environmental groups ForestEthics and Wildsight... If the past is any guide, the likely outcome will be unrepresentative, foundation based environmental organizations compromising away vast areas of intact ancient temperate rainforest for vague promises that industrial logging will be "ecosystem based" or some other such nonsense. Prompt global citizen response is needed to continue advocating to end ancient forest logging.


Monday, October 8, 2007

More Bili Apes

I opened my email today to find 2 letters about the Cleve Hick's Bili Ape post. A letter from distinguished wildlife champion Karl Ammann followed by a rebuttal by Cleve Hicks who has lived and worked in the Bili area for 18 months since 2004.

I am glad to provide this blog as a forum to discuss these matters. I by no means pretened to know what is happening right now in DRC, but I do know how absolutely devastating it can be to see the conflict between the apes we want to protect and the people living in ape range countries that have so much less than us (those of us living in developed nations). On the other hand, I agree with Karl Ammann that we have too much "feel good conservation" going around (not that the Bili area falls under that title in my opinion). The situation is bad for all the great apes and tough decisions need to be made now by those leading the huge number of conservation agencies working in Africa (and Asia) today.

This by no means is a black and white issue and I think both letters raise some very interesting points (when they are not slandering one another).

I also want to remind you that all is not a lost cause, there have been efforts in DRC around field sites to eliminate the presence of poachers who are emptying the forests of the country. One such example is Jonas Eriksson's work around Gottfried Hohmann's bonobo research site in Solonga National Park. (Original posting HERE with correction by GH HERE).

Finally, I would like to say that I really agree with Cleve's PS. At the end of the day, it is our fault in developped countries, as we have created a market for goods from Africa (and Asia). It is us who turn a blind eye to where the materials we use originate. Until we each became much more conscientious buyers, it will do little good to place blame on the people at the source who have so little to begin with. Its pretty basic supply and demand.

For more information on the Bili Apes please visit Cleve Hick's and Karl Ammann's sites

Karl Amman's letter:
Dear Mimi,

a third party suggested I look at the DNAPes web page and your home page concerning a recent posting on the Bili Chimps.

Below I message I sent to Hans Wasmoeth and Cleve Hicks several weeks ago. It clearly illustrates that the Bili chimps were in big trouble long before any miners moved in.
Their troubles increased once conservation started taking a back seat to collecting scientific data and the main policy became not to rock the boat in any way and to look the other way where and whenever possible.

As ususal this was then combined with new hype and selling of feel good conservation tales which had nothing to do with the realities on the ground.

In the interest of providing the readers with a balanced message I do feel this should also go up on your DNAPES web page.


Karl Ammann

(the reason the Azande of northern Congo hava light foot print is because their are very few of them and the population is declining which in turn and according to the resident missionaries is mostly a result of inbreeding.
Inviting in miners by the traditional chiefs is this opposite of wisdom. It will affect their tribal cohesion and once and for all dispell the rumours of their powerfull witchcraft which so far has kept neighbouring tribes clean of the area.)

Dear Hans,

I guess the fact that we have had some major differences of opinion as far as the Bili conservation project is concerned seems beyond doubt. However I always had high hopes that in the end the project was more then a tax shelter scheme.I am no longer sure that this analysis was right.

I just spent some 12 days in the region with some journalists and while our main objective was to establish the demand pattern for elephant meat compared to that of ivory, we did conduct a wide range of interviews, which included residents of Bili on visit in Zemio, as well as some extensive low level survey flying over many parts of the Bili Uere protected areas and other parts of the CAR and DRC (the first
elephant we managed to spot from the air was however at Dzanga Sangha, while Ron kept pointing out saline/clearings where only ten years ago dozens of elephants would have congregated late in the afternoon).

As such the results of this survey were more then just distressing:

- It would appear that the U$ half a million 'bridge to nowhere' built by MMe Live, combined with the hundred thousands you have put into the coffee scheme have resulted in some kind of an economic boom scenario for Bili. We were told that there are now even large new shops selling electronic equipment among other items. The result, as should have been expected, is an influx of new residents which combined with the new disposable income seem to have drastically increased the demand for bush meat. This influx also includes two prominent hunters from the Gadia village one of them being Caiman, and the fact that they do not seem to have turned to carpentry or agriculture at their new residence.

- We were told a wide range of ammunition and guns are now available for sale in Bili ( a few years ago the lack of ammunition was one of the main restrictive factors as far as poaching was concerned).

- According to Shadraka, during a recent visit by Chief Selesi to Zemio he declared that he had outlawed the sale of elephant meat in the Bili market but that the sale of any other bush meat was not restricted

- The end result appears to be that the bush meat supply and demand pattern has drastically changed: While pretty much all the elephant meat still comes out through Zemio there is now a flow of smaller bush meat items FROM THE BORDER AREA INTO BILI.

- Ron reported that on his most recent trip to Bili he saw five baskets of elephant meat being transported openly on the road between Badai and the camp and that he was able to smell it far down the trail.(something you would have been aware of).

- The reports from Shadrak state that one of the former trackers (Commando) has gone back to active elephant hunting and has killed several this year in the Gangu area.

- Several other parties have killed elephants out of the last remaining herd of elephants along the Gangu. This includes a Mr. Martin and Mr. Merci who delivered an elephant in smoked form to Gadia on May 2nd.

- On May third another elephant arrived in 'the same condition' this time hunted by Tanibouaniwia (the guy Alexis managed to get arrested at one point - albeit without much impact it would appear) in the Ebale area and again transported via Badai and Bulamassi.

- On May fourth the wife of a hunter came to the mission to sell the meat of a hippo which her husband had shot on the Dume River and which again came out via Bulamassi
(I have little doubt that in these hunting forays in the area of the research camp and the Gangu river the research transects are being used to gain access to the forest and transport the meat)

- On May 6th another elephant and ivory arrived in Gadia, hunted by Tanibouaniwia's assistant from the Ebale/village forest again involving the transport through Badai and via Bulamassi to Adama.

- While in the past we contemplated to set up hidden trip cameras to monitor the elephant meat traffic on forest trails running from Ebale up to the Assa River, this no longer seems to be an issue: The meat is now again transported openly on bicycles (most likely including coffee project bicycles) along the main road through chief Selesi's village and the main coffee buying area.

- We also obtained the new custom duty tax list at Zemio and nothing much has changed as far as importing bush meat from the DRC except it has all gotten a lot more detailed. Besides the 'paniers' of smoked meat - which are almost always elephant - there are now taxes for individual pieces and lots of 10 pieces and as a new addition specific taxes for dead antelopes and monkeys. There is little doubt that dead chimps are covered by this and Sadraka has reported the arrival of chimp meat but it also covers a wide range of lesser primates which are all covered under Appendix 2 of the CITES convention two which both the DRC and CAR are signatories.

- Elephant meat in Zemio is no longer openly sold in the market but there now is a very active house to house trade - as by the wife of the Gadia hunter who came to sell hippo meat to MMe Wendy

- A French trophy hunter with a camp on the way to Rafai, which we interviewed, confirmed that there was still regularly meat shipments which came via Ginekoumba and Dembia and that Mmm Reimond from Rafai was still in the meat trading business.

- The cameraman also run the camera while discussing ivory with a Chadian ivory trader in town and while I have not seen a transcript yet he stated that the ivory trade had picked up and was very active at the moment.

I have for the last ten years had one mantra, that of preaching independent third party auditing of conservation projects and to hopefully learn from mistakes. As I said before, I am more then just distressed to see that I initiated a conservation project which now seem to go the route of many of the others, becoming a major part of the problem rather then a solution and without any real effort being made to evaluate the overall impact.(putting Shadrakas reports up on your web page might be an initial step).

If all the above is combined with the fact that the DRC law does not allow commercial cultivation in protected areas and that a big part of the coffee buying project covers areas in the hunting and wildlife reserve, I would have thought that such an independent third party - unannounced - audit would be in everybodys interest but certainly in that of the last hippos and elephants in the Bili Uere area.

I also have now been maintaining for years that conservation projects in this part of the world have no hope to succeed if they do not combine an arsenal of carrots and sticks. Buying the coffee clearly amounts to a major carrot, withdrawing the coffee income and investing it instead in real and serious law enforcement by well trained ecoguards - from outside the project area - could be relevant sticks. At this stage to pretend things are under control and that no additional measurers are needed and that the present approach is working has a high chance of The Wasmoeth Wildlife Foundation, in the end, presiding over the last elephant and hippo of the area ending up in an Azande cooking pot.

Ball in your court


Cleve Hick's letter:
Dear Mimi,
If you do decide to post Ammann's response to my posting, I hope you will post the following as well (but I will understand if you choose not to post either):

Ammann quit the Bili project in early 2005 and has not returned to the area since. The closest he came was Zemio early this year, and much of his reporting from there is based on hearsay and speculation. I actually lived in Bili for a total of 18 months, in 2004-2005, and then 2006-2007. I also spent much time surveying nearby collectivities in 2006. The results can be found on our website presentation. If Ammann choses to ignore the reports of the very scientist he sent into the area, and instead base everything on gossip from sources living 60 km away from Bili, that is his choice. It seems to me he does not have much interest in the pristine Gangu Forest that is currently at risk, and is more interested in proving his point that DRC is corrupt and incompetent, and that all conservationists and researchers (except for him, of course) are sell-outs.

Ammann expresses a clear contempt for the Azande people. He never took the time to learn their language (or even Lingala) and now all he can talk about is their inbreeding. I lived with these people for over a year, and they do have much wisdom. If their leaders have made a bad choice (or have been forced to make that bad choice by outsiders wielding large amounts of money, and probably weapons) that does not mean that their society is worthless, and should not be protected. They have certainly done a better job of guarding their charismatic megafauna than, say, Switzerland.

Re Ammann's claim that hunters have been using our transects to access Gangu: The Dume River boders the Guamonge and Sasa Collectivities to the east. It is perhaps 70 km from Gangu. So why on earth would Ammann imply that a hippo and some elephants were being hunted by poachers using our two year-old transects at Gangu? I can personally attest that this is not the case. First of all, as far as we can tell there are no hippos in the Gangu (it is a very small river). In 2006, we verified that the transects had become completely overgrown and had not been used for anything since our departure (indeed, you could hardly tell they were there). It would have been impossible to follow them even two years ago, as we disguised them by marking them with flagging tape on the savannahs and later removing the tape. Ammann has an active imagination, and his baseless accusations here are nothng short of slander.

It is nothing more than idle (and inflammatory) speculation that TWWF bikes are being used to transport elephant meat through the Bili area. I suppose that this claim is based on missionary pilot Ron Pontier's observation of what was probably elephant meat being carried by bike near Baday (which, Ron acknowledged to me that very day, could have been buffalo meat). This was one incident. I have made the Bili-Baday walk numerous times, and have observed smoked fish and red-tailed monkeys being transported, but never elephant meat nor that of any other large mammals (contrast this to the neighboring collectivity of Sasa, where during a one week survey I found an orphan chimpanzee for sale and saw two big loads of unidentified mammal meat being carried across the Mbomu; Jeroen Swinkels encountered porters carrying elephantt meat,and photographed the meat). No one is claiming that elephants have not been hunted in the Bili area, before and after my arrival. But to me, it was very interesting to see that elephants were still numerous at Gangu and even near Baday (within 5 km!) when I returned in 2006-2007, even after a year in which the coffee had not been bought. We still have a chance at Gangu. However, the gold mining threat may put an end to that chance.

Most outrageous are Ammann's repeated claims that the conservation project was sabotaged by a focus on research. This implies that the situation at Bili (prior to the gold mining invasion) has actually worsened since my arrival in 2004. Again for the record, the research camp was evacuated in early 2004 due to threats from poachers, several months prior to my arrival. On the very first day of my arrival in August 2004, I was sent by Ammann to film a police commandant hiding ivory in his house. Three chimpanzee orphans had been confiscated from Bili and neighboring areas, again, prior to my arrival. And elephants were being killed going all the way back to Ammann's earliest reports on the region - there are photos in Consuming Nature of our very own trackers proudly displaying elephant meat prior to the initiation of the project. Yes, elephants were being killed during my time at Bili (but not at Gangu!!!) as well as before. During my time at Bili, most of the evidence for elephant killing came from Roa, far to the SW, and in the Sasa collectivity in the E (from which elephants have been almost completely extirpated, except for a small population near the Dume, which is probably the source of much of the meat arriving in Zemio). This is nowhere near Gangu. Whether or not the elephants and chimpanzees at Gangu would have done just as well without the presence of the conservation project is difficult to know. But there is no question in my mind that the poaching rate will increase dramatically with thousands of gold miners installed in the area. Why doesn't Ammann focus his anger on that outrage instead of attacking his former colleagues who have not yet given up on the Gangu herds?

The Bili chimps are actually part of what is probably the largest continuous distribution of chimpanzees left on the planet. Our survey work has shown that they are abundant over thousands of square km, and exist even within 4 km of towns like Bili. Far from the roads (at Gangu) they are relatively fearless of humans, which makes me think that they have suffered very low or non-existent hunting pressure in these areas. In areas closer to towns, they are terrified of humans. These are the chimpanzees that I was assigned to habituate by Ammann when I first joined the project in 2004 (indeed, Ammann had been trying for years to habituate them with sugar cane). For the record, based on the chimpanzees' fear of humans and continuing problems with local authorities, I (in agreement with Ammann and Wasmoeth) ceased efforts to habituate these apes in January 2005, and instead embarked on transect work. It was on this transect work that we found the naive chimpanzees and a large population of elephants, which Ammann had assured me over and over again had already been killed. This research obviously had more to do with conservation than chimpanzee behavior.

It seems to me that Ammann's tarring of his conservation partner as running a tax shelter scheme is less an effort to protect the fauna of the Bili area than a stunt to draw attention to himself. Hans Wasmoeth has made repeated trips to the area and to the seats of government in Kinshasa and Kisangani to speak up for Bili. Do I have a solution to the onslaught of commercialism that is devastating Congo's wild places as we speak? No. I am not so sure that Karl Ammann's brand of 'feel bad conservation' is having much of an effect either. But I have not given up. Comfortable though it might be to work somewhere else (where I actually could do the research I was invited in to do, without being harrassed by corrupt officials), I am going to try and stick it out in Congo, because the world needs to know what it is that we are about to lose. Ammann has not been rocking any boats in Bili for over two years now, and seems content to rain down abuse on his friends from his mountaintop in Kenya. I would encourage Ammann to concentrate his considerable intellectual powers on the real problem, which is of unbridled commercial exploitation of African wilderness, which threatens to destroy elephants, chimpanzees, and yes,ancient cultures like those of the Azande for which he seems to have so little respect.

Cleve Hicks

PS. While it may be easy to blame Bili's problems on Madam Liv and her bridge, and The Wasmoeth Wildlife Foundation, might the real culprits be rich Westerners and Asians buying up gold and ivory without even wondering about the effects on rich and complex African ecosystems, and traditional African cultures?

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Very Important Scientist of the Month (again): Kevin Langergraber

Dr. Langergraber and colleague's new paper in PLOSone entitled "The Genetic Signature of Sex-Biased Migration in Patrilocal Chimpanzees and Humans" came out this week.

Click on the title below to read the open-access article:
The Genetic Signature of Sex-Biased Migration in Patrilocal Chimpanzees and Humans
Kevin E. Langergraber, Heike Siedel, John C. Mitani, Richard W. Wrangham, Vernon Reynolds, Kevin Hunt, Linda Vigilant

For other papers from our lab, go to our lab webpage

Shameless Self Promotion

Woo Hoo! DNApes was linked from

check it out here

This is a great resource for all things primate and not just the really biased stuff that I post that I'm interested in.

Check out their post on the recent mountain gorilla killings but I am reposting the Al Jazeera news report here because it is such a great find (the original DNApes post on the killings can be found here):