Chimpanzee Population In Uganda Three Times Larger Than Once Believed

First Posted: Aug 25, 2015 10:46 PM EDT

New findings published in the journal BMC Ecology reveal that a chimpanzee population in Uganda has been found to be three times larger than previously estimated, suggesting that the animals may adapt to degraded habitats better than expected.

Deep in the forests of the Budongo and Bugoma Forest Reserves, one quarter of the estimated total chimpanzee population in Uganda resides. The unprotected area between these two reserves is a human-dominated landscape comprising forests with villages, agricultural lands and natural grasslands.

However, between 2000 to 2010, close to 540 km2 of the forest is estimated to have been lost beween the Budongo and Bugoma Forests, which could be vital for conservation.

In this recent study, researchers spent 15 months carrying out ‘genetic censusing' to help determine an accurate method for counting chimpanzees in the corridor region. This involved collecting 865 chimpanzee fecal samples across 633 km2 and genetically analyzing them to identify the presence of 182 different chimpanzees.

From there, they estimated the total population size of the area to be either 256 or 319 chimpanzees based on calculations. This suggests the presence of at least nine communities containing a minimum of eight to 33 individuals each. These figures are more than three times greater than a previous estimate of around 70 chimpanzees based on small-scale nest count surveys.

"Our results demonstrate a much larger population than previously estimated in this region. This is very surprising given the fragmentation of forests in this region and the high human population density," Lead author Maureen McCarthy from University of Southern California, USA, said in a news release. "Chimpanzees, therefore, appear surprisingly resilient and can survive even in degraded habitats if they are not hunted. However, their future survival remains uncertain if protection is not afforded to them and habitat loss continues unabated."

Researchers believe that due to long intervals between chimpanzee births and the high rate of habitat loss throughout the region over the intervening years, it is highly probably that these higher estimates show evidence of population growth since the time of the previous census. Yet substantially higher estimates likely reflect the improved accuracy of genetic censusing approach over previous estimates.

"Our study demonstrates that even unprotected and degraded habitats can have high conservation value. Though national parks and other protected areas are typically prioritized in conservation planning, unprotected areas should also be considered vital for conservation if they are highly valuable as wildlife corridors that harbor endangered species and maintain gene flow among larger populations of such species."

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