Our closest living ancestors are vanishing before our eyes. Are we next?
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to interact face-to-face with our closest living relatives? To hear them, smell them, hold them? My intense curiosity for these questions, as well as a desire to help promote wildlife conservation, is what led me to getting to know some of the most marvelous creatures that walk the planet.
Imagine waking up 6 a.m., having torrents of rainfall slide heavily down off your raincoat and onto your boots. Then imagine having an orphan chimpanzee reach out at you, cautious at first, murmuring with a soft “hoot hoot hoot,” fervently grabbing for your middle finger. When she first deeply gazes up at your face, with eyes that are so full of expression it makes you question if she is even real at all — it changes you. After spending six weeks surrounded by almost 100 chimpanzees in Sierra Leone, I can confirm, and hopefully convince you, that chimpanzees are well worth saving from extinction.
The world as we know it is rapidly changing, and with these changes come negative implications to tropical forest ecosystems and the primates who inhabit them. Currently, 60% of all primate species are under the threat of extinction, and 75% of species have declining populations. Wild chimpanzee populations have plummeted since the 2000’s, causing extinction already in four of their 25 range countries. If we don’t take action now, populations will decline by an additional 80% within the next 30 years or so. The trajectory is clear — it is up to our generation to alter the trend.
So the question now becomes, how do we prevent this impending extinction crisis? One answer to this overwhelming large problem begins on a relatively small scale, but is slowly summoning up momentum in the deep rainforests of Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone is home to approximately 10% of the estimated 53,000 remaining Western chimpanzees. Sierra Leone’s expanding human population has swiftly increased deforestation of critical chimpanzee habitat, making way for agriculture, mining, and infrastructure development. This combined with diseases like Ebola, as well as hunting for bushmeat and the illegal pet trade, has caused a dramatic decrease in their population. So much so, that they are now on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species.
Despite weak law enforcement and limited resources, the country’s only chimpanzee sanctuary, known as Tacugama, works tirelessly in areas where remaining chimpanzees reside. Tacugama has, and continues to, implement a range of conservation and community outreach initiatives to help mitigate site-specific issues posing the greatest threats to chimpanzee populations. One of the most effective ways they have created positive change so far, is by working with the communities which live in closest proximity to the Western Area Peninsula Forest Reserve.
Take for example, Moyamba District, where Tacugama has been carrying out an extensive community forestry management program since January 2018. It targets five communities that neighbor two forests (Mai-Makombo and Yelleh-Sorbengi) as well as mangrove regions. These areas provided essential habitats for a number of key wildlife species, but unfortunately have faced deforestation due to slash-and-burn agriculture.
To help protect these habitats, in addition to promoting community-based forestry management, the program also has succeeded in the continuation of a bio-monitoring program that recruits community members to monitor and present wildlife data. They’ve also provided workshops teaching sustainable oyster farming to help empower local women. They’ve held community meetings about sustainable forest management practices. They’ve supported local teachers in the implementation of Tacugama’s environmental education curriculum. The list goes on.
While these projects might seem small relative to the damage being done, I can tell you first hand that they are making a significant difference: not only for the people who live here, but also for the chimpanzees who remain. Supporting small-scale, long-term conservation strategies is imperative for protecting the forest and thus the survival of chimpanzees in Sierra Leone. I would argue that the effects of conservation efforts are felt substantially more here, due to site-specificity and vital need for action.
No, Sierra Leone is not my hometown, and chimpanzees are not humans, but I firmly believe we have a responsibility to stand up for the issues that matter most to us.
It is up to each individual to decide what kind of difference they would like to make, and I strongly encourage you to make a difference on issues that you feel most passionately about. For me personally, I feel the urgency of this situation deep in my bones. And because I’ve seen that I can, in fact, make a significant difference here, the work is well worth it.