Despite widespread hunting and habitat loss, chimpanzees are more abundant in Uganda than believed, according to scientists from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), which recently completed a comprehensive census of the nation's chimps.
Researchers counted some 4,950 chimpanzees in Uganda, considerably more than the 3,000 to 4,000 scientists previously thought to live there.
This recent census marks the first time scientists combined nest countinga classic census technique developed in the 1970s - with high-tech GPS navigation to more accurately count chimps. Like gorillas, chimpanzees construct new "nests" made of leaves each night for sleeping.
Obtaining an estimate of chimpanzee numbers is of critical importance to the conservation of this species in Uganda. "We now have baseline numbers that can be monitored over time so that we can accurately say if they are increasing or decreasingsomething that was previously impossible to say with confidence," said WCS researcher Andrew Plumptre, who led the survey teams.
"Knowing the numbers also helps prioritize where conservation efforts should be targeted."
The researchers were quick to point out that finding a larger population than originally believed should not lead to complacency in protecting chimps, which are still illegally hunted in parts of Uganda.
Scientists estimate that more than 4,000 chimps are killed each year for food throughout Africa. In Uganda, out of the 20 forests surveyed, the researchers say only four had large-enough populations to remain viable in the long term.
Over 25 percent of chimpanzees in tourist and research groups in Uganda are missing hands or feet as a result of snares from wire traps set out for antelopes.
Protecting chimpanzee habitat is equally important, scientists said. "Maintaining patches of forest on private land, and along streams that link main forest blocks is of critical importance to allow gene flow between populations and ensure their long-term survival," said Debby Cox, executive director of JGI.
The researchers commended Uganda's Wildlife Authority and Forest Department for supporting chimp conservation; chimps in Uganda are probably better studied than almost anywhere with five long-term chimpanzee research sites. Uganda is probably the easiest place to visit chimpanzees as a tourist, with four tourism sites within a day's drive of the capital, Kampala.
"Chimpanzee tourism provides income locally and as a result local communities perceive the benefit of having these apes around," said Plumptre. "It is the most promising tool to protect the remaining chimpanzees in Uganda's forests."