'It’s a miracle that there are still chimpanzees at all'

February 24, 2017

The number of Western Chimpanzees has fallen by around 80% over the last 20 years. As a result, these animals are now at risk of extinction. If current trends continue, chimpanzees and other great apes may soon be eradicated in the wild.

The number of Western Chimpanzees has fallen by around 80% over the last 20 years. As a result, these animals are now at risk of extinction. If current trends continue, chimpanzees and other great apes may soon be eradicated in the wild.

Christophe Boesch, the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has been researching chimpanzees in the Ivory Coast for over 35 years. In Taï National Park, the Max Planck scientist oversees three research camps that scientists can use for their research projects. Scientists have observed these wild chimpanzees, which have grown used to the presence of humans, over the course of several years. This has afforded them a wealth of new insights into the animals’ lives.

Boesch founded the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation 16 years ago, in order to save the Western Chimpanzees from extinction. The non-profit organisation campaigns to protect chimpanzees in the Ivory Coast, Guinea and Liberia. The behavioural scientists’ research projects at the Max Planck Institute help to develop enhanced protective measures.

Mr Boesch, what is currently the greatest threat to the chimpanzees’ survival?

Boesch: On the one hand, large parts of the habitats have been destroyed in recent decades and turned into farmland. But there has also been an increase in hunting for these animals: the people in the chimpanzees’ countries of origin are poor, and often rely upon wild meat. This combination of factors has led to the dramatic fall in the number of chimpanzees.

What is the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation doing to combat this?

Boesch: One of our most significant projects at present is establishing two new conservation areas in Guinea and Liberia. In Guinea alone, the Moyen-Bafing National Park can provide habitats for around 5000 chimpanzees. We are currently in negotiations with the governments and the World Bank regarding the financing.

In addition, we support the authorities with data, so that they can prosecute poachers better. In the Ivory Coast and Liberia, local villages are assisting with patrols in two national parks. Environmental education is also particularly important for us. For example, we’ve initiated partnerships between schools in Germany and the Ivory Coast: the pupils at four primary schools and secondary schools around Leipzig are sharing the results of their lessons with their peers, and are collecting money to help the schools in Africa. On top of that, we operate an eco-museum in Taï National Park.

The countries with chimpanzee populations are very poor, and some are also politically unstable. Under these circumstances, how can you encourage local people to engage in protecting the chimpanzees?

Boesch: It’s very difficult, of course. Down the years in the Ivory Coast, I’ve experienced two civil wars and seen the chimpanzees suffer two major Ebola epidemics. In light of this, it’s a miracle that there are still chimpanzees at all.

But the people are noticing the changing climate. They have realised that the climate becomes drier when they chop down forests. It makes people rethink things. Liberia, for example, has set itself the aim of protecting 30% of its remaining forests, and Guinea wants to place 15% of its total surface area under conservation protection from 2020. When you compare that with the meagre 0.6% of the land protected through national parks in Germany, it’s an admirable target.

Do the local people also benefit from protecting the chimpanzees?

Boesch: Without that, it wouldn’t work. People will only engage to help protect them if they will benefit from the conservation areas themselves. That’s why we want to support eco-tourism in the Taï National Park in the Ivory Coast. But our conservation measures and research projects also create work and generate income locally. The people know that we’ll support them in the long term, and that we’ll even come back after a civil war. Perhaps that’s the reason why not one single chimpanzee was poached in the scientists’ research area during the last civil war in 2011. In the other conservation area, however, the chimpanzee population fell by around 60% between 2010 and 2012.

What role does eco-tourism play in West Africa today?

Boesch: Unfortunately, that industry is very much in its infancy. In East Africa, it is considerably more developed. Tourists come from far and wide, go to considerable lengths and pay significant amounts to see the mountain gorillas in the Republic of the Congo. That has contributed significantly to the fact that these animals have survived the chaos in the country comparatively well in recent years.

In West Africa, we’re not quite there yet. Here, tourism still generally means a beach holiday. We have to entice the holiday-makers further inland from the coast, and make them aware of the natural and cultural treasures on offer. We want to make people aware of eco-tourism, and educate the local people who live around the conservation areas, so that they are aware of the needs of tourists and nature, and can work to bring them together in harmony. To do this, we’re collaborating closely with the Ministry of Tourism in the Ivory Coast.

What does your foundation’s work need the most?

Boesch: It may sound banal, but it’s money!

Our conservation projects often lack the required funds. Lots of projects never get off the ground simply because we don’t have the funds. To give an example: to operate one national park, you need around one million Euro per year.

That sounds like a lot, but there’s no shortage of money in the world: it’s just spent on the wrong things. While there are no funds available to protect species, projects that exploit nature are swimming in money. We need to change that, and soon!

Interview: Harald Rösch

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