Nature’s Equilibrium Isn’t Monkey Business

There’s a reason scientists and volunteers are tracking chimpanzees in the Budongo Forest in Uganda – and it’s not just because National Geographic put Uganda in its list of Top 20 global destinations.

Group of Sonso community chimpanzees.

Group of Sonso community chimpanzees.

Chimpanzees are an endangered species, decreasing at unsustainable rates. Many chimpanzee troops in Uganda are under long-term study to fully understand these population declines and the steps needed to reverse the trends. Yet, a recent census indicates the chimpanzee population within the Budongo Forest Reserve could be on the rise.

While the Budongo population increase is clearly great news for the primate, a bigger family comes with a higher price. A possible result stemming from this suggested population increase is a higher demand for fruit from trees in the forest, the same fruit that forms the basis of a natural chimpanzee diet. With other studies indicating that the number of fruiting trees is decreasing, this may mean not enough fruit to go around for all the chimps! This may contribute toward forcing chimpanzees to expand their search for food beyond the forest, and into local farms. And when farmers have their crops raided, they aren’t happy. This causes conflict.

Primates on the farm.

Primates on the farm.

Conflict Evolves Between Humans and Chimpanzees
This is where participants on Tracking Chimps Through The Trees of Uganda help solve one of nature’s puzzles. One of the research topics at the Budongo Conservation Field Station within the Budongo Forest Reserve is to examine the species conflict between humans and their closest living relative, the chimpanzee.

Lucy Bruzzone is a Project Manager for Earthwatch, and recently returned from Uganda where she observed chimpanzees and other primates that inhabit the forest first-hand. Lucy manages 16 different expeditions for Earthwatch, and has traveled to locations across the map, including Borneo, Thailand, the French Alps, and the Scottish Hebrides visiting projects. This was her first trip to Uganda, and she helped bring this local story and its research needs to life.

Lucy Bruzzone, Earthwatch Project Manager, Tracking Chimpanzees.

Lucy Bruzzone, Earthwatch Project Manager, Tracking Chimpanzees.

“The original research question from Earthwatch lead scientist and, ecologist, Dr. Fred Babweteera, came about from the results of long-term research being conducted in the area on forest ecology. Data collected in the last 20 years on tree phenology – fruiting and flowering cycles – have shown a decrease by 15% in the total number of trees producing fruit in the last 15 years. This raises the question of why? And what are the implications? How has this impacted the primate populations and in turn the local human population? If primates can’t eat the fruit, what is their main food source? Where would they go to supplement their diet? Do they forage at different times or places? Do they raid people’s crops more often?”

Crop-raiding by primates is a well-known problem and a serious contributor to human-primate conflict, and these are questions researchers must consider when investigating. Lucy continued:

“We are hopeful that with research help from volunteers, the project can help us better understand the impact of the decreasing fruit abundance, and this will help to inform management strategies in collaboration with the National Forestry Association that manages the Reserve. Such strategies will hopefully enable chimpanzee and humans to live together in harmony, in their shared environment.”

Evolution Took Years, and So Does Chimpanzee Data Collection
If these changes are being seen across the Reserve, researchers want to identify why the changes are happening so they can make recommendations in their management strategies to address them. If the changes are actually localized to the original research area, this may be due to specific tree species, microclimate or other environmental change in the area. Understanding all this will be key to the management strategy created and recommendations made. And the answers don’t come over night.

“There is a unique long-term data set here that researchers started looking at in the 90’s. Primates have fixed home ranges and rarely move about, so it is possible to study the same troops and groups that were studied back when data was first collected to see if any changes in habits have occurred linked to changing fruiting patterns. Equally, the team at the Budongo Conservation Field Station has recently expanded their research area and more hands-on help is needed to collect the data to answer these questions. This is where Earthwatch volunteers help.”

Lucy explained further.

“The BCFS wants to see if the changes they’ve identified in their local area of the forest are unique, or if they are being seen across the Budongo Forest Reserve. By helping to collect data on tree flowering and fruiting, insect populations, chimpanzee and monkey diets and crop raiding, Earthwatch volunteers can help investigate the situation, and hopefully help resolve it.”

Chimpanzees in the trees of Uganda.

Chimpanzees in the trees of Uganda.

Every five years, there is a census that estimates how many animals there are in the Budongo Forest so that population trends can be monitored and the causes or impacts of these trends can be investigated. With thorough research and subsequent management strategies, it is hoped that human-primate conflict in the area can be reduced and forest health improved. In the future, research results should lead to a positive outcome for both local communities and primate populations around the Budongo Forest Reserve.

The next census is in 2015, so there is plenty of research to keep everyone busy until then. We hope you can join us in the forest.

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