A call came in from a farm down the road. Calls like these are becoming more frequent, but they never get easier. The vet grabbed her supplies and raced to the scene. Within the rows of maize, on the ground was a chimpanzee. Covered in coarse black fur, she laid close to the ground, huffing and in obvious distress. Her leg was stuck in a “man trap,” spring-loaded teeth held her in place. The vet freed her and examined her leg. It was shattered, irreparable. It would need to be amputated. It was becoming more common to see chimpanzees bearing the scars of snares like these, hanging from trees with one or even both legs missing.
The traps are laid by farmers, an escalating attempt to keep chimpanzees out of their fields. Many farmers stand watch, Monday to Sunday then Monday again, and shoo them or throw rocks. But more and more farmers, like this one, are becoming desperate and are turning to more radical measures to keep these trespassers out.
Life in this village is hard. There are few economic opportunities, so to eat, you have to farm. The fields dominate the landscape, stretching up to the boundary of the Budongo Forest Reserve, where the chimpanzees live. This farmer’s land boarders this reserve, making his maize too tempting to ignore for his chimpanzee neighbors. A handful of food to the raiders here or there may not do much harm, but with his farm under constant assault, he had to choose: defend his land or let his family go hungry.
This clash between chimpanzees and farmers is not just threatening the farmers’ food, but also their safety. In 2014, an adult male chimpanzee snatched Ntegeka Semata’s two-year-old son from their garden, as reported by National Geographic, dragging him into the forest and killing him. Ntegeka is not the only mother to lose a child. The farmers say that when they grew up, even just ten years ago, raids by primates weren’t frequent. But now, as farmland has consumed the surrounding forests, things are different. Local scientists look to the staggering changes in the landscape as one of the main instigators in this escalating conflict.
But what really is deforestation? How does it drive animals, like chimpanzees and humans, into conflict? And is there anything we can do to stop it, or at least slow it down?
Investigating Threats to Chimps in Uganda
Some effects from deforestation are fairly predictable—like erosion and loss of species. But forests don’t exist in a vacuum. The land and ecosystem services lost when forests are destroyed will also affect the wilderness and wildlife that still surround it, resulting in unexpected, sometimes fatal, consequences. This is the case in the Budongo Forest Reserve in Uganda.
“All the trees outside have been cleared, and everywhere there is human encroachment up to the forest edge,” said Geoffrey Muhanguzi, the field team leader and a co-scientist on the Earthwatch expedition Investigating Threats to Chimps in Uganda.
This proximity of animals and humans and the overlap of shared resources has resulted human-wildlife conflict, as humans rely on crops grown in areas chimpanzees used to be able to freely roam and forage. Geoffrey, along with Dr. Fred Babweteera, the lead Earthwatch scientist for this project, are trying to understand why fruit production has declined over the years and exactly how this affects primate foraging.
With the help of Earthwatch volunteers, Geoffrey and Fred are collecting data on where in the forest fruiting and flowering trees are, the abundance of primates and birds, and how climate variables are affecting fruiting trees. People come from all over the world to hike through the dense forest and track chimpanzees, meticulously observing their eating habits.
“You can see the volunteers developing a feeling of how challenging it can be living at the protected area and community interface, how it can be challenging to grow agricultural crops within a landscape that has wild animals entitled to their home,” said Geoffrey.
With the help of these volunteers, Geoffrey and Fred are able to collect data on a scale that wasn’t possible before. With the extra helping hands, they have a much clearer picture of what is happening within the forest. But these trees have life spans of hundreds of years, meaning many more years of data are need to have an accurate idea of what factors are influencing their fruit production.
“We have information that is starting to raise a red flag and point somewhere, but we still need more years of data collection,” said Geoffrey. “What we have now is a systematic way of building this data set, so that in the future it is used as a reference point.”
“What we have piloted and what we recommend is the use of non-palatable crops,” said Geoffrey.
To alleviate the conflict between chimpanzees and humans, Fred and Geoffrey are encouraging farmers to plant crops that don’t appeal to chimpanzees— either because they aren’t tasty or they’re inedible. While this would effectively reduce the number of chimps stealing from farmers, it would require massive buy-in on the part of the local community. They’d have to shift from subsistence farms to cash crops and rely on the market to ensure that their crop is valuable enough to support their family.
While researchers can fight to protect the remaining forests, there is no painless solution for the conflicts that have resulted from wide-scale deforestation in the area. Clashes between humans and wildlife are increasing as areas that were once home to a variety of species are abruptly repurposed for agriculture, mining, or development.
But what is the solution? Humans can’t just stop farming. There’s a huge global market for the natural resources harvested from forests, and for every country willing to strictly protect their wilderness, there’s another waiting to take advantage of the economic opportunity.
Fighting for a Future for Our Forests
The first law of ecology is that everything is connected. When a tree is cut down, the tree itself isn’t simply removed. The food it provided is gone. The shelter it gave is gone. The carbon it stored, the roots preventing erosion, the shade it created are all gone. From deep into the soil to beyond its highest leaves, the absence of that tree will leave a scar. And when whole forests are destroyed, it leaves a wound that infects the land around it, creating conflict and loss.
There’s no simple way to prevent the damage of deforestation. Each forest has a unique set of animals, people, and circumstances that need to be addressed. So if we want to save these forests, we’ll have to do the hard work. We’ll need long-term data and boots on the ground. And that’s what Earthwatch is doing. They’re working with scientists in the most vulnerable ecosystems around the world to ensure that the necessary data is available to make policy decisions that will both conserve forests and support local people.
You can donate to support this critical research. Each donation to Earthwatch will help fund research equipment and ensure this critical data is collected. Make a meaningful contribution to protecting threatened forests. Join us to protect our planet and combat deforestation around the world.
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