Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Problems for Fongoli chimps

At this time of year at Fongoli the herds of sheep arrive. This began in 2006. From about the middle to the end of the dry season (January through May), young Puhlar men who tend herds of sheep filter into the area from up north. Northern Senegal, which is considered part of the Sahel (sub-Saharan Desert region), has been basically denuded of vegetation, partly through overgrazing. It appears that the same thing may happen here if the sheep herds continue to range in the area!
The first year the herds appeared, the number of livestock did not seem to be too problematic. Rather, the manner in which they were tended was distressing. The shepherds cut limbs of trees to provide browse for their sheep, but they also cut entire living trees as well, rather than just branches from these trees! The first year, it seemed that they mainly cut Acacia trees. While there are only a number of tree species that provide any sort of browse at this time of year, Acacia trees are also protected by thorns, so it was not surprising that this was the species cut down rather than trimmed. One of the reasons I chose to begin my research at Fongoli and not within the nearby Niokolo Koba National Park was that I was fascinated by the fact that chimpanzees were living alongside humans – in an area where most of the other forms of wildlife had gone extinct. To this end, I try and observe the dynamic between humans and chimpanzees rather than imposing a sort of a National Park mentality on the place. At some point, however, human encroachment does seriously endanger the existence of the entire chimpanzee community (as well as population), and I have to decide as to what steps can and should be taken.

Last year, however, my project manager Stephanie Bogart (also my Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Iowa State) reported that the issue of the sheep herds was even more problematic. Their number had increased, and they were allowed to camp near the village, thus encouraging their use of the chimpanzees’ range. Stephanie and Johnny explained their concerns at a couple of dinners they put together for the people of Fongoli and of Petit Oubadji, another village at the margins of the Fongoli chimps’ range. They hoped to convince the elders of Djendji next – the largest village within the home range of the chimps, whose leader is the person that should be asked for permission regarding any mode of land use (including chimp research). At about that time, however, the herds moved back up north, and we knew we would have to deal with the issue this year.

This year, the sheep herds are many, and the shepherds are cutting down trees again, as well as pruning limbs for browse. Some of the trees they have cut include hardwoods that may be hundreds of years old, and I measured the diameter of one to be almost a meter wide. Additionally, the reaction of the chimps to the herdsmen indicates that they have had bad experiences with them. In one case, a party of chimps was happily feeding in a Kukua tree when a herdsman approached. The chimps fled from the tree, rapidly left the area entirely, and were nervous for the rest of the day. In another case, some of the chimps had already made their nests one evening when we heard the sounds of the shepherds herding their flocks. Most chimps fled rapidly and, although I think they ended up nesting only about 50-100 meters away from their original spot, their behavior indicated they were more afraid of these people than they are of farmers and others who live in the area and who they encounter out “en brousse” (in the bush). Usually, the chimps simply sit silently until a person moves past, or they will divert their travel path, etc. It is unusual that we see such radical flight from them.

The first thing we have done is to meet with the village leader of Djendji. Two years ago, he and I entered into an official agreement via the authorities of the district so that together we are able to halt destruction of the chimpanzees’ habitat by outsiders (i.e., those who are newly immigrated to the area and who haven’t grown up here farming, etc., for their whole lives). We recently did this in the case of Maragoundi. Maragoundi is the site of a former village – in fact, it is where my field assistant and the elder of Fongoli village, Mboule Camara was born and raised. This year was the first that anyone who has lived in the area can remember that Maragoundi ravine has been cut for planting crops (by someone living in Kedougou, looking for land). With our authority, we were able to stop the person from farming this area, although the level of destruction at Maragoundi is great. Normally, we notice that a forested area has been marked for farming, and we are able to stop the process before a significant amount of destruction has occurred. In this case, however, the person threw a corvĂ©, which is like a big planting party – and they rapidly cleared at least a hectare (100 by 100 meters) before we were able to stop them. This included cutting down some very large Taba trees, which are one of the few species of evergreen trees you find at Fongoli. Clearly our retroactive methods need to be revised and/or supplemented with better proactive methods than we’ve used this far.

But, back to the sheep. The village leader informed us that he does not like the fact that the shepherds are destroying the habitat he grew up in – and the one he will leave to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren and so on. However, he also notes that other village leaders allow these shepherds to camp near their villages – it is hard to take a stand without a concerted effort. Additionally, culturally, it is very difficult to refuse hospitality to someone. The people here are some of the most welcoming people I have ever met anywhere. This generosity adds to the problem of refusing to allow the temporary migration of the herds into the region.
We are now exploring the possibility of taking the protection of the area to the next level. On paper, this area is protected. There are 3-4 men at Djendji village whose responsibility it to watch for any illegal activities such as the cutting of particular types of trees. However, they do not have any documentation giving them this authority so that it is difficult for them to actually halt such activities. This seems to be a problem that we can solve fairly quickly. Probably an even greater problem, however, is that of time and money. These men, like everyone else who lives in the region, work very hard to make ends meet. Rural Senegal, especially, is impoverished, and the yearly income of an average Senegalese person is less than U.S. $1,000!! One way that we hope to remedy this issue is to provide the “rangers” with some sort of stipend, as well as a uniform that helps give them the authority they need to enforce the laws. This is one of the goals of our non-profit organization, Neighbor Ape (see posting at right of webpage).

At this time, we are awaiting the return of a Forestry official from Dakar. We have made arrangements for him to come out and view the habitat destruction and, hopefully, make some headway in our discussions with the herdsmen and the leaders of the villages in the area. It will likely be a slow process, but we hope to have this issue resolved before next year’s dry season, at the very least.

Finally, on the subject of habitat conservation, we recently came to find out that a French-Italian concession has started a project nearby that entails introducing wildlife to the area for hunting. While this might sound like an opportunity in one regard – bringing back some species that have been locally extinct – I can also imagine issues for the chimpanzees. Given that the area will be adjacent to the Fongoli chimps’ home range – although perhaps encompassing the overlap area between them and the neighboring chimp community – the fact that this large are will be FENCED almost certainly will be problematic for chimpanzee dispersal between communities. This is a threat to the long-term viability of the chimpanzee population of Senegal and one that we will also hopefully deal with via our non-profit organization and with the assistance of those interested in conserving Fongoli chimpanzees, such as Chris Eckstrom and Frans Lanting (National Geographic photographers), who are helping facilitate conversations about such threats with leaders of Conservation International.
As the population of Kedougou continues to grow, a continued push to farm areas of the Fongoli chimps' range 
will no doubt affect the community ultimately.  The photo here was taken by Julie Lesnik, PhD student at U Michigan, as I was following the chimps across a recently cleared field.

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