An ambitious 30-mile corridor of newly planted trees may be a lifeline of survival for 15 chimpanzees living in an isolated rain forest in war-torn Rwanda.
Referring to it as "one of Africa's most ambitious forest restoration and ecological research efforts," scientists and conservationists hope the new Rwandan National Conservation Park will connect an existing forest reserve with an existing national park, thereby allowing the isolated chimps to reach brethren and expand their habitat.
The project is a reality in part because of a new research facility in Des Moines, Iowa, called the Great Ape Trust. It is working with the Rwandan government and Earthpark, a national environmental education center proposed for Pella, Iowa.
This is an ambitious plan, but the Gishwati chimpanzees are on the brink of extinction. Every newly planted tree increases their chance of survival by providing additional food, shelter and security from people, said Dr. Benjamin Beck, director of conservation at Great Ape Trust. If we direct the reforestation southward, there is the additional advantage of bringing them closer to a larger, more secure population in the Nyungwe National Park in Rwanda and the Kibira National Park in Rwanda, with a combined total of about 800 chimpanzees. Once they make contact, the Gishwati chimpanzees will enjoy a wider pool of prospective mates, and thus can avoid inbreeding.
The Gishwati Forest, in Rwandas Western Province, was deforested in the 1980s by agricultural development and in the 1990s during the resettlement of people following the civil war and genocide. Human encroachment, deforestation, grazing and the introduction of small-scale farming resulted in extensive soil erosion, flooding, landslides and reduced water quality as well as the isolation of a small population of chimpanzees.
Chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestor, making them our closest living relatives, from an evolutionary perspective. That is part of the reason chimps have been targeted for medical research and entertainment for so long, despite mounting ethical concerns.
In that respect, giving a little land back to these chimpanzees is a small payment on a large debt.
For more on the study, see EurekAlert.
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