Taking care of man’s closest relatives

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Chimpanzees are thought to be our closest living relatives with over 99% similarity in our genetic makeups. Photo courtesy of Afrika Force/flickr.

MELBOURNE, Australia (19 June, 2011)_50 years ago, there were at least one million chimpanzees living in the equatorial forest belt that stretched across Africa. Today, only 300,000 chimps remain- scattered across Africa in fragmented patches of forest with little hope of long-term survival, warned Jane Goodall at Melbourne Zoo last week.

Considered to be the world expert on chimpanzees, Goodall is best known for her 45-year study of social behaviour and family interactions of wild chimps in Gombe Stream National Park. Though the smallest of Tanzania’s national parks, Gombe is one of the few remaining sites in Africa that still contains a fragile strip of chimpanzee habitat. Outside of the park, however, the forests and most of the wildlife have been almost entirely eliminated due to the desperation of a rapidly growing human population forced to exploit local natural resources to support their own survival.

“When I flew over Gombe in the early nineties, I knew there was deforestation outside the park but I was unprepared for the almost complete destruction. The hills that had been forested in 1960 were now barren with terrible soil erosion and there were more people living [on the outskirts of Gombe] than the land could support,” she said.

“Although the great apes cannot be saved without preserving their forest homes, we cannot begin [this work] if the people living around the national park are in such a dire situation.”

A young Goodall with two of her favourite chimps, Flint and Flo. Photo courtesy of David Bygott/flickr

Several years later, the Jane Goodall Institute began to implement a holistic community conservation program, aiming to sustainably improve the lives of people living around Gombe National Park. The Lake Tanganyika Catchment Reforestation and Education program (TACARE or more warmly referred to as the Take Care approach) offers locally-managed training and education in sustainable natural resource management.

Through the development of farming methods most suitable to the degraded land, water projects, health services, family planning programs and reforesting the eroded slopes of the valleys, the program hopes to create a sense of environmental stewardship, empowering communities to reclaim their pride in, and continue with the sustainable management of the forest and wildlife surrounding them.

Said Jane, “Perhaps the most important program we introduced was microcredit opportunities, mostly for women to borrow, for example, a few hundred dollars to grow pineapples on already degraded ground. Because they are able to repay the loan, these women take ownership and pride in their work.”

Whilst the tropical forests of this world are disappearing at the same terrifying rate as the creatures living in them, Goodall is optimistic about the future of the great apes. “There is now a buffer zone of trees growing all the way around Gombe. Those bare hills that I looked out over in the early nineties now have trees that are over 30 foot tall, and there are the beginnings of leafy corridors, moving down to the south where there are forests where chimps still roam.”

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