Chimpanzee Subspecies: The Western Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes verus)

Known Range: Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, Ivory Coast, and sections of Ghana.

IUCN Red List classification: Endangered


Within Sierra Leone’s 100-acre National Protected Land, home to 117 chimpanzees, lies the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary.

What initially began as a $20 ransom payment for a sick baby chimpanzee in the 1980s by Bala Amarasekaran and his wife Sharmila has evolved into a renowned national learning center.

Both tourists and locals frequent the sanctuary daily, enticed by the presence of its chimpanzees.

In Sierra Leone, the primary ape species found are chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Photo by Sindikie Baryoh.

The sanctuary, initially established as a serendipitous refuge for seven chimpanzees, has since expanded its reach to seven districts across the country.

It serves as a beacon for raising awareness about the protection of national animals and advocates for the creation of additional sanctuaries, especially in regions with significant chimpanzee populations.

The Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary is situated on the outskirts of Freetown along the Regent-Jui ring road within the Western Area Peninsula National Park.

Established in 1995, the sanctuary’s Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center has continuously emphasized the collective responsibility of Sierra Leoneans and their partners in safeguarding endangered species.

In Sierra Leone, the primary ape species found are chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). The country is home to chimpanzees of the subspecies Pan troglodytes verus, often referred to as the West African chimpanzee.

This particular subspecies inhabits various countries in West Africa, spanning Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, and parts of Ivory Coast. Pan troglodytes verus is distinguished by its unique genetic and morphological traits, setting it apart from other subspecies of chimpanzees. Within these nations, Western Chimpanzees reside in a diverse array of forested environments, ranging from tropical rainforests to gallery forests and woodland savannas.

Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary is situated on the outskirts of Freetown along the Regent-Jui ring road within the Western Area Peninsula National Park.

Four subspecies of Chimpanzees are commonly recognized: the Western Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes verus), the Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzee (P. t. ellioti), the Central Chimpanzee (P. t. troglodytes), and the Eastern Chimpanzee (P. t. schweinfurthii).

In Sierra Leone, the chimpanzees are native to various forested areas in the country and are known to inhabit regions such as the Western Area Peninsula National Park and Outamba Kilimi National Park.

However, since the 1970s, ecologists have noted a notable decrease in Sierra Leone’s wild chimpanzee population, dropping from an estimated 20,000 individuals. This decline is linked to various factors, including hunting, habitat encroachment, and the trafficking of chimpanzees for pets or scientific research.

Now, the chimpanzee population in Sierra Leone is estimated to be around 5,500 to 6,500 individuals. This estimate includes both wild chimpanzees and those living in sanctuaries and protected areas. However, due to factors such as habitat loss, poaching, and disease, chimpanzee populations in Sierra Leone, like in many other regions, face threats to their survival.

In particular, the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary faces a grave threat from encroachment by locals.

Ecologists warn that without prompt government intervention, the sanctuary faces the risk of permanent loss.

Daniel Abowe, an environmental scientist from Uganda specializing in biodiversity conservation, natural resource management, and resource governance, asserts that such human-wildlife conflict, particularly concerning apes, has hastened habitat loss.

He emphasizes that this presents a significant challenge to the “conservation efforts aimed at protecting our closest relatives in the animal kingdom.”

Tourists and locals frequent the sanctuary daily, enticed by the presence of its chimpanzees. Photo by Sindikie Baryoh .

The Western Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes verus), to which the Tacugama Chimpanzee belongs, shares the Endangered classification with all chimpanzee species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The 117 chimpanzees residing in this sanctuary face imminent threat from residents of Freetown due to encroachment for illegal settlement construction and the extraction of firewood and charcoal.

In April 2006, a notable event occurred when 31 chimpanzees escaped from the sanctuary.

After two months, 27 chimpanzees returned, leaving four still at large, including Bruno (the first rescued chimpanzee), Abi, Toko, and Charlie Boy, as reported by the Sanctuary.

Sidikie Baryoh, the communication officer of the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, expressed deep concern over the rapid encroachment on their land.

He emphasized, “It is dangerous for encroachers and even those who are clearing the forest to reside there because this is a protected area and we have a lot of wild animals on the land.”

Most communities in Sierra Leon rely on natural resources found within protected areas for their livelihoods, including access to land for agriculture, hunting, fishing, and collecting forest products for subsistence and income generation.

Numerous residents from nearby communities of the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary informed our reporter that poverty and restricted access to alternative livelihood options compel them to encroach on protected areas for survival. “How else can we make ends meet?” at least five people, residents of various communities lamented.

But also, rapid population growth in Sierra Leone has led to increased pressure on land and resources, pushing communities to encroach into protected areas in search of land for settlement, cultivation, and other activities.

On Thursday, July 28, 2022, the House of Representatives in Sierra Leone enacted an amendment to the Wildlife Conservation Act of 1972.

This amended bill, titled “The National Protected Area Authority and Conservation Trust Fund Act, 2022,” imposes stringent penalties on offenders, including encroachers. Those found guilty face substantial fines, imprisonment, or both, as well as forfeiture of any illegally obtained trophies from protected areas.

But this has not deterred neighbouring communities from encroaching on the protected areas.

The chimpanzee population in Sierra Leone is estimated to be around 5,500 to 6,500 individuals. Photo by Sindikie Baryoh.

Sidikie Baryoh emphasized that despite the sanctuary’s cordial relationship with the government of Sierra Leone, facilitated by the Ministry of Environment and the National Protected Areas, “the lack of policy enforcement remains a significant challenge in safeguarding the national animals.

He explained that although the sanctuary is located within a protected forest, local residents persist in encroaching upon it. Currently, their presence does not extend to the entire 100 acres of land, making it challenging to monitor illegal activities on the other side.

Baryoh highlighted their ongoing efforts to safeguard the forest through community engagement and awareness initiatives aimed at altering people’s perspectives and behaviors. He stressed that the animals are national assets necessitating the involvement of every citizen in their protection.

He mentioned the establishment of school clubs nationwide to broaden their outreach and educate more people about the significance of chimpanzee protection.

According to Baryoh, the sanctuary provides support to the 21 communities in Outamba Kilimi National Park to safeguard other park animals. Ultimately, their overarching vision and responsibility are to protect as many national animals as possible, including chimpanzees, to enhance the country’s biodiversity and economy.

This story was produced with support from Apes Reporting Project (ARP). ARP is a project of Water Journalists Africa, which also runs InfoNile, a geojournalism project.

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