Hang in There, Cousin!

Despite human encroachment, chimpanzees are standing their ground in Uganda.

August 25, 2015

Counting chimpanzees is no small task: Getting to know and adding up who’s who is a long and involved process; tallying “nest” numbers can be inaccurate; and we haven’t quite gotten all the kinks out of video monitoring.

So a group of researchers in Uganda have turned to poop for answers. After collecting 865 feces samples and analyzing the genetic material within them, they were able to identify at least 182 individuals. The scientists were then able to estimate that between 256 and 319 chimps live in the heavily developed area between the Budongo and Bugoma forest reserves.

This is good news. Not only does it mean that this chimpanzee population is three times bigger than scientists previously thought, it also means these great apes can be resilient in the face of human encroachment.

Photo: Jack Lester

The land between the two protected reserves is a mix of villages, farms, and natural grasslands, and between 2000 and 2010, chimpanzees lost about 175 square miles of their forest habitat there. Primatologist Maureen McCarthy and her team, whose research was published this week in BMC Ecology, don’t think the large chimpanzee numbers suggest that the population is growing but rather that they’re good at adapting to degraded areas and human presence—as long as they aren’t hunted.

Apparently the chimps have learned to eat some people foods, and now, all hopped up on the Red Bulls and hot dogs, they are quicker to tell humans to buzz off in confrontations.

That kind of pluck is great for surviving in the Anthropocene, but the researchers are quick to caution that this doesn’t mean we can breathe a big sigh of relief and rest on our conservation laurels. Fewer than 150,000 chimpanzees remain in the wild, and one-quarter of the species’ population in Uganda lives within the Budongo and Bugoma forests. Chimps need to be able to safely traverse the space between these areas in order to mix and mingle and dazzle potential mates. We need to keep this corridor hospitable for our closest cousins so they can keep spicing up their gene pool (but we should probably stop spicing up their diets with human grub…).

Photo: Jack Lester

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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