Bleak news for the pygmy chimpanzee

Posted on 09 December 2004

According to a recent survey, pygmy chimpanzees in the Congo Basin may have been hunted so extensively that the survival of the species is at risk.
Gland, Switzerland - Pygmy chimpanzees or bonobos — arguably our closest relative — may have been hunted so extensively that the survival of the species is at risk, WWF is warning. 
The bonobo is found only in the heart of Africa's Congo Basin and is much less widespread than the closely related and better known chimpanzee. Scientists had estimated the bonobo population to be perhaps as high as 50,000.

However, preliminary results of the first systematic survey of a known bonobo stronghold indicate that may be an over- estimation. The survey was conducted in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 36,000km2 Salonga National Park, a protected area the size of Holland. 
The first data in from about a third of the park shows evidence of very few bonobos living there. No bonobos were encountered, and sightings of nests and dung were only made in a quarter of the area surveyed, at lower densities than previously measured.

In contrast, there was abundant evidence of human encroachment into the park and of poaching. WWF hopes to be able to establish a clearer picture of how many bonobos are left in the wild once all of the results of the survey have been compiled and analyzed early next year. 
The Salonga survey's worrying findings coincide with the 75th anniversary of the scientific description of the bonobo. 
"These initial results concern us greatly," said Dr Peter J. Stephenson, WWF's African Great Apes Programme Coordinator. "Salonga National Park was created in 1970 specifically to safeguard the species and potentially represents the largest, undisturbed and protected habitat for the bonobo. If things are this bad here, we can assume that across the Congo, bonobos are in crisis." 
The survey of Salonga National Park, supported by WWF, was undertaken by the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) and the Wildlife Conservation Society. It was conducted as part of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) programme for Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE). As with the bonobo estimates, the survey recorded lower elephant numbers than expected. 
During the long running civil war in DRC, it became almost impossible for ICCN to protect effectively the country's national parks. Increased poaching by armed militias and local people was inevitable with serious consequences for the bonobos of Salonga as well as the local people. 
WWF has now launched a new project to monitor and protect surviving bonobo populations in the northern sector of Salonga National Park. It is providing park staff and researchers with training and equipment as well as supporting  anti-poaching operations on foot and by boat to stop the illegal killing of the rare apes. The project is being implemented by ICCN and the Zoological Society of Milwaukee in partnership with WWF's Salonga Landscape Programme. 
“The war has had terrible consequences for the people and wildlife of the Congo Basin," said Lisa Steel, co-ordinator of WWF's Salonga Landscape Programme. "However, now, as the Democratic Republic of Congo rebuilds socially and economically, the opportunity is there to make sure that forest conservation benefits not only wildlife but also local people." 
* Although often equal in height to their close relatives the chimpanzees, bonobo’s limbs are more slender, they have smaller, more rounded skulls, and they have a black face with reddish lips. They also have a distinctive natural hair “style”, with their long hair parted exactly in the middle. Their chest girth is relatively small, and they have relatively small ears and a relatively high forehead.
* In 1929, E. Schwartz described the bonobo in German in a scientific journal for the first time. His description was based on a small sample of skull found in a Belgian museum — an old specimen brought back from Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). He proposed it as a subspecies of chimpanzee and named it Pan satyrus paniscus.
* Four years later another scientist (H.J. Coolidge) published a more extensive analysis based on more information, and he concluded that it differed so much from other chimpanzees that it merited being classified as a separate species — Pan paniscus (the scientific name it maintains today).
* Bonobos are often cited as one of the closest relatives to human beings. The genetic code in the DNA of chimpanzees and bonobos is closer to that of humans than to that of gorillas.
* The bonobo is found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the central Congo Basin, south of the Congo River, in a mix of forest, swamp, and grassland habitats. Due to the remote location and the dense forest habitat, combined with the insecurity caused by the recent civil war, it has been difficult for researchers and park authorities to conduct surveys and to count bonobos. Hence the reason why population estimates have been based on extrapolations from limited data sets, resulting in wide variation in numbers.

For further information:
Claire Doole, Head of Press
WWF International
Tel: +41 22 364 9550
Bonobos (Pan paniscus) are being extensively hunted in Africa's Congo Basin.
© WWF / Russell A. Mittermeier
Central African MIKE forest elephant inventory sites.