Chimpanzee Subspecies: Common Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes)

IUCN Red List classification: Endangered

Chimpanzee Subspecies: Eastern chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii)

 IUCN Red List classification: Endangered

By Asiimwe Wilson

Widespread deforestation, fueled by logging, farming, and land development, is forcibly displacing chimpanzees from their native forests in Uganda and thrusting them into neighboring communities. As a result, some chimpanzees are adapting new behaviors in their struggle for survival.

In Uganda, two species of apes dominate the landscape: chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and gorillas (Gorilla beringei). Specifically, the country hosts two subspecies of chimpanzees: the common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) and the endangered eastern chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii). These subspecies thrive within a network of national parks and protected areas scattered across Uganda, with notable habitats including Kibale National Park, Budongo Forest Reserve, and Queen Elizabeth National Park.

The common chimpanzee subspecies is listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Likewise, the eastern chimpanzee is listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Chimps in Budongo Central forest reserve in Masindi, Uganda. Photo by Asiimwe Wilson.

Habitat destruction threatens Bugoma central forest reserve

In Bugoma Central Forest Reserve in western Uganda, the once-thriving chimpanzee population is facing a significant decline due to habitat destruction caused by human activities, particularly land clearance for agriculture and settlement.

The primary crop cultivated on a large scale by investors near this reserve is sugarcane. Hoima Sugar Limited  cleared a portion of Bugoma Forest in 2021 for the expansion of sugarcane cultivation.

Uganda has been experiencing deforestation at a rate of approximately 2.4% annually, according to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Deforestation rates vary across different regions of the country and are influenced by factors such as agricultural expansion, logging, infrastructure development, and population growth. And due to deforestation in chimpanzee habitats, there has been a noticeable decline in the population of these animals.

The map of Bugoma Central Forest Reserve (In Dark Green).

According to Paul Hatanga, Project Manager at the Wildlife Conservation Society, a census conducted in 2001 estimated Bugoma forest to be home to approximately 570 chimpanzees. However, according to Hatanga, recent surveys reveal a stark reduction, with the population now dwindling to around 390 individuals.

Hatanga attributes the decline in chimpanzee numbers in Bugoma Central Forest Reserve to the widespread clearing of Bugoma forest for both subsistence and commercial farming, forcing the primates into increasingly fragmented habitats along the corridors of Bugoma and Budongo forests.

Asiimwe Aliguma, the Communications Officer at the Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda (CCFU), underscores the urgent need to protect chimpanzees by engaging and sensitizing private foresters to preserve forest areas where these animals can thrive.

“During our recent inspection of Bugoma forest, we discovered many chimpanzees killed by unknown individuals, while others sustained injuries,” Aliguma reveals.

He emphasizes that the loss of habitat due to deforestation has not only led to direct harm to chimpanzees but has also disrupted their reproductive patterns, hindering their ability to sustain population growth.

“These animals are not even given an opportunity to breed. To reproduce, conditions must be favorable. They cannot breed when they know circumstances are hostile,” Aliguma asserts.

The situation at Kabwoya Wildlife Game Reserve, in the districts of Hoima and Kibaale, is even worse. George Businge, the warden overseeing this reserve, emphasized the urgency of addressing habitat loss.

Kabwoya Wildlife Game Reserve covers an area of about 87 square kilometers (approximately 34 square miles).

Businge stated, “The survival of the chimps is threatened by the loss of habitat. If we can devise means of equitable distribution of resources and understand their behavior, maybe we can resolve these conflicts.”

Chimps in Bugoma and Budongo forests alter eating habits

Conservationists report that chimpanzees in the Budongo and Bugoma central reserve forests in western Uganda, traditionally frugivores, have displayed a new behavior, turning to meat for sustenance.

This shift is linked to heightened forest destruction, stripping away the natural habitat and the abundance of fruits and flowers that chimpanzees rely on.

Widespread deforestation, fueled by logging, is forcibly displacing chimpanzees from their native forests in Uganda. Photo by Water Journalists Africa.

The destruction of forests has also escalated human-wildlife conflicts, as farmers cultivating cocoa, jackfruit, sugarcane, cowpeas, and pawpaw suffer significant crop losses due to chimpanzee consumption.

Moses Semahunge recounts a startling incident: a female chimpanzee from the Kitoba community was spotted consuming a guinea fowl, while another chimpanzee was seen slapping a pig—an alarming behavior with implications for human safety and domestic animals.

In a linked development, the Bulindi chimpanzee community has now incorporated jackfruit into their diet, a behavior previously unseen prior to 2006.

This adjustment also stems from the loss of their natural habitat’s wild fruit sources, compelling them to turn to cultivated fruits according to Semahunge.

He says chimpanzees in Bunyoro region have adapted to consuming at least 27 agricultural crops as they rely on garden produce, now their primary food source due to habitat loss and the depletion of their natural food supply.

The Bulindi and Kitoba chimpanzee communities are among the 11 communities in Northern Hoima, with some chimps migrating from the Budongo forest.

Semahunge, a natural resource specialist and conservationist, advocates for habitat restoration and the deliberate planting of fruit trees to mitigate human-wildlife conflicts.

He emphasizes the crucial role of protecting the Bugoma-Budongo forest chimpanzee corridor in safeguarding the 11 chimpanzee communities in Northern Hoima and Bunyoro.

Survival for the fittest?

In this part of Uganda, instances of chimpanzees leaving protected areas to raid crops or even attack people are increasing, especially in sections where habitat destruction has encroached upon their natural habitats.

When their habitat is fragmented or destroyed, the chimpanzees venture into nearby human settlements for food, such as crops like maize, bananas, or other fruits. This behavior, known as crop raiding, can lead to conflicts between humans and chimpanzees.

For example, in Hoima City, residents of Rusembe 1 western ward in Duhaga are living in fear after a chimpanzee invaded their village late 2023, leaving villagers vulnerable to the unpredictable behavior of the primates.

Costance Muhanuzi, a resident affected by the invasion, expressed her distress, saying, “It destroyed all my fruit trees and vegetables which are important sources of income to my family.”

Fred Okirifoda, another resident, recounted a tragic incident where a chimpanzee killed a one-year-old baby in their village. Such incidents highlight the escalating conflict between humans and chimpanzees as the animals increasingly turn to human settlements for food.

chimpanzees in the Budongo and Bugoma central reserve forests in western Uganda, traditionally frugivores, have displayed a new behavior, turning to meat for sustenance. Photo by Prosper Kwigize.

Conservationists emphasize coexistence between humans and chimps

While some wild animals are often viewed negatively for their occasional conflicts with humans and damage to crops, they play a crucial role in ecosystem regeneration, making them essential for environmental conservation efforts.

Chimpanzees contribute significantly to the regeneration of trees by dispersing seeds through their consumption of fruits and subsequent droppings. They also enrich the soil with manure, creating favorable conditions for tree growth, thereby combating the adverse effects of human activities such as charcoal burning, timber harvesting, agriculture, and urbanization on natural forest cover.

Moses Ssemahunge, Manager of the Bulindi Chimpanzee and Community Project (BCCP), underscores the vital role of chimpanzees in dispersing tree seeds and promoting environmental conservation. He highlights how these animals indirectly contribute to the replanting of fruit trees like jackfruit, which are often destroyed for charcoal production.

Ssemahunge calls upon government stakeholders and environmentalists to collaborate in raising awareness about the critical role of “fruit-eating animals in forest conservation”, emphasizing the need for “a green and healthy environment” conducive to wildlife habitation and human well-being.

George Businge, Warden of the Kabwoya Wildlife Reserve and Hoima Central Wildlife Area under the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), cautions against “deforestation near conservation areas”, warning of its detrimental impact on climate and biodiversity.

He emphasizes the importance of emulating chimpanzees’ behavior in tree planting and environmental preservation, urging communities to transition from being mere tree cutters to active tree planters.

“If each of us could adopt the mindset of chimpanzees, who contribute to reforestation, our environment would thrive. The challenge lies in encouraging people to become planters rather than just cutters,” Businge asserts.

George Owoyesigire, Deputy Director for Community Conservation at the Uganda Wildlife Authority, emphasized the” economic value of chimpanzees”, noting their significant contribution to the tourism sector.

Tourism revenue in Uganda surpassed $1 billion USD for the fiscal year ending in 2023, marking a notable increase from approximately $687.2 million USD recorded in the previous fiscal year ending in 2022.

A Professor leads chimpanzee conservation efforts in Budongo forest

Professor Fred Babwetera of Makerere University, through the Budongo Conservation Field Station, is spearheading efforts to protect chimpanzees in Budongo forest. Babwetera’s approach involves engaging local communities and schools to ensure the preservation of chimpanzee habitats and natural vegetation.

“We involve school children who participate in debates, and the schools with the best ideas receive funding for projects aimed at conservation,” Babwetera explains.

The initiative comes amidst a concerning trend of deforestation in Masindi district due to logging and charcoal burning activities. Babwetera has taken proactive steps by mobilizing communities and distributing tree seedlings to promote reforestation efforts.

“When I realized that most of the natural trees have been cut down, I started community mobilization and engaged institutions like schools and churches to provide them with natural and fruit trees,” Babwetera states.

Prof Babwetera with some of the school children after a debate recently near Bugoma central forest forest. Photo by Asiimwe Wilson.

Under his guidance, over 2000 trees have been planted by local communities, with a focus on involving school children in conservation activities.

Masindi district local government chairperson Cosmas Byaruhanga commends Babwetera’s leadership in conservation efforts, affirming the district’s support for his initiatives.

Rare Albino Chimp Spotted in Budongo Forest

In a remarkable discovery, Gilbert Mwesige, a researcher at Budongo, sighted the first young albino chimpanzee in the Budongo tropical rainforest on July 19th, 2021. Reflecting on his experience, Mwesige shared the journey that led to this extraordinary find.

Mwesige recounted the momentous day: “When I was moving with my guides in the forest in 2021, a chimpanzee with albinism was observed within the Sonso community, in the Budongo Forest Reserve.” The newborn chimpanzee, its hair stark white and eyes pink, captivated the team’s attention.

“Individuals with albinism are extremely rare in animals, and in chimps, it’s not common to find an albino,” remarked Mwesige, emphasizing the rarity of the sighting. Despite the initial excitement, the researchers faced resistance from some members of the Sonso community, hindering closer observation.

Tragically, the joy of the discovery was short-lived. Mwesige revealed, “Some few days later, the baby chimp was killed by others because of its color.” This heartbreaking turn of events underscored the challenges faced by albino animals, even within their own communities.

Fred Businge, a conservationist, highlighted the significance of this event, noting that the albino baby chimp was the first of its kind documented in the Sonso community. However, he lamented the prevalence of infanticide in the community, suggesting that the baby could have been a victim despite its unique appearance.

The discovery of the albino chimpanzee sheds light on the complex dynamics within chimpanzee communities and underscores the need for continued conservation efforts to protect these remarkable creatures.

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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