Hang in There, Cousin!

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

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.

Credit: 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…).

Credit: Photo: Jack Lester

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by NRDC.org and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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