Liberia has one of the world's largest populations of Western chimpanzees, according to a new study by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. However, the primates may become increasingly threatened as deforestation occurs throughout the nation.
Parts of West Africa, including Liberia, are in the midst of an Ebola outbreak, and years of war in recent history have made getting an accurate count of wildlife in the nation difficult. But the new census has revealed that Liberia is home to about 7,000 chimpanzees, making it the second largest stronghold for the species in the world.
The wide distribution of the chimpanzee population in Liberia makes it one of the most viable populations in West Africa.
But the Liberian government, burdened with economic collapse, is trying to create revenue by selling its natural resources, which could threaten the habitat of some of the chimps.
The researchers say their chimpanzee census can be of great use to the Liberian government in order to protect the primates and make evidence-based wildlife management decisions.
Currently, less than 4 percent of Liberia's forests are classified as protected areas, yet the researchers found that 70 percent of the nation's chimpanzee population, as well as a host of other large mammals, live outside of the protected area.
Liberia is in the process of increasing the extent of the protected area network to cover at least 30 percent of the nation's forests.
"The results of our study provide crucial information for site prioritization and selection in this ongoing process," lead study author Clement Tweh, of the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation in Liberia, said in a statement. "For example, the shape and location of some of the proposed protected areas might have to be re-considered. Also, it will be necessary to rapidly implement full protection status for proposed conservation priority areas, as future mining and forestry projects are encroaching fast."
Liberia's healthy chimpanzee population is credited in part to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's recent dismantling of so-called "private use permits" which were issued to about half of the nation's primary forests. A section of forest under one of these permits was not subject to sustainability requirements.
"Our survey makes it clear that [ Sirleaf's] action has also saved a large number of West African chimpanzees," said study co-author Menladi Lormie, a Max Planck researcher and FDA ecologist.
The research is published in the journal Oryx.
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