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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Ivory Coast: Race to save the chimps

To support the efforts of the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation in Cote d'Ivoire please go the their homepage!

From the Global Post
by Laura Burke
Conservationists are working to keep endangered chimpanzees alive and wild.

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — On a humid October day in a tropical forest in the middle of Abidjan, members of Ymako Theatri theater group, dressed in black suits, jump to the beat of drums and sing: "Chimpan-zees are our cou-sins! Let’s not eat them any-more! Let’s not kill them any-more!"

The rhythm is catchy and the performers are energized, singing: "We must protect the forest for the future of our children!"

Today, like always, the audience is rapt.

The long-established international theater and dance troupe has been working with the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation since 2002 to hammer home a message of conservation in villages around national parks in Ivory Coast and beyond.

It’s a message this country can use.

Years of armed conflict, population growth and a lack of park management has resulted in a free-for-all environment in Ivory Coast's parks and reserves, said Inza Koné, this nation’s only homegrown primatologist. He runs a local organization called Research and Action to Save Primates in Ivory Coast.

Ivory Coast's chimpanzee population declined by 90 percent over a period of 17 years, according to a 2008 report by the German Max-Planck Institute. The ape is now critically endangered.

Many international conservation groups, including World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International, withdrew their offices from Ivory Coast after the 2002 civil war began, deeming the security situation too dangerous to work there, and they have not returned.

“Wildlife Conservation Society had one resource person here and he died two or three years ago. They could not find a single person to replace him. Not a single person,” Koné said.

But in Tai National Park, a small group of conservationists, primatologists and local field officers have weathered moments of crisis to keep the park’s chimpanzees protected from poachers and deforestation.

“[Tai] is the model for Ivory Coast,” said parks official Djé Francois N’goran.

Their efforts seem to have paid off. The chimp population in Tai remained stable from 2007 through 2010, said Dervla Dowd, deputy director of the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation.

Data from the last tumultuous year is not in yet, though.

Last November, after Ivory Coast’s former president Laurent Gbagbo refused to leave office following a contested election, the country was plunged into six months of violence that killed thousands of people, many in the west. Park rangers left their posts for months. During their absence, poaching rose sharply in parks across the country, N’goran said.

Koné said when his team returned to Tai there were also signs that poaching had increased.

“We found gun shells and heard gunshots. We saw campsites around the park,” he said.

Field officers reported seeing a couple of chimps in the [bush meat] markets, “but since there are so few chimps left, they are hard for poachers to find, as well,” said Dowd.

But she remains optimistic. At least “the field assistants were able to find all the habituated chimps [in the research area],” she said.

Just miles from the often volatile Liberian border, in Ivory Coast’s southwest, the Tai National Park is the home of some 500 chimpanzees and other threatened species, like forest elephants, the pygmy hippopotamus and the red colobus monkey. The park is the largest protected tropical forest in West Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Wild Chimpanzee Foundation and the Tai Chimpanzee Project, both started by German primatologist Christophe Boesch, carry out bio-monitoring, behavioral research and community outreach around the park. Boesch began his research in the Tai forest in 1979 and lived there for 12 years.

There are four sub-species of chimpanzee in Africa and they have different behaviors, said Emmanuelle Normand, director of the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation.

“Even within each sub-species there are different cultures. The way they make tools, eat termites, for example.”

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