How Helping Mothers Helps Chimpanzees

Written By: Kari-Lyn Danyluk , JGI Canada volunteer
Category: From The Field
Two infants are born on the same day, a few kilometers apart in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The human baby is born at home, in a remote village with few medical resources. The chimpanzee infant is also born at home, in the soft leaves of the mother’s nest with extended family nearby, in the forest that surrounds the human community. Both mothers begin the arduous task of ensuring their infant’s survival.

A mother chimpanzee cradles her infant in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania

Simply to reach adolescence, the human infant faces numerous challenges. The DRC experiences some of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world. One in seven children die before the age of five, frequently from preventable illnesses like malaria or diarrhea. Seventy-three infants will die for every 1000 born, and 540 mothers die for every 100,000 live births. In a small rural village where every person’s contribution is critical, losing so many mothers is not only devastating for the immediate family, but for the entire community.
The human mother is also affected by ongoing conflicts. Like two-thirds of her fellow citizens, she will find it difficult or impossible to access government-sponsored health care, and will have to rely instead on whatever skills can be found in her village.

Seventy-three infants will die for every 1000 born, and 540 mothers die for every 100,000 live births.

Typical maternity wards in the DRC lack basic infrastructure, adequate sanitation, clean water, and medical equipment. All of this contributes to high infant and maternal mortality rates.

A few kilometers away, tucked deep into the forest, the infant chimpanzee is also experiencing unique struggles. Despite high maternal and infant mortality rates, overall population growth is rapid, putting pressure on natural resources and causing significant deforestation and habitat loss. The chimpanzee’s mother will also have to be careful to avoid hunters and poachers who see her and her baby as a quick and easy profit to sell for meat or the illegal trade.
With so many threats and obstacles, neither mother nor baby thrives.

Infant chimpanzees are dependent on their mothers for nourishment for at least five years. If orphaned in the wild, they can die of starvation, often found clinging onto their mother’s lifeless body. Luckily, this infant chimpanzee was rescued by staff from the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center after his mother was killed by poachers.

Fortunately, JGI Canada received a $4.1 million grant from Global Affairs Canada and is working towards implementing solutions that will reduce infant and maternal mortality rates in the Lubute and Walikale territories (eastern DRC), in turn, providing long-term benefits for chimpanzees.
Bella Lam, manager of Africa Programs at JGI Canada, says that early wins for the new project will be training local health volunteers to deliver important information about maternal health and family planning. Family planning was identified as a key component of the project because when women have the information and resources they need to take charge of their fertility, population growth declines to more sustainable levels, and improves outcomes for mothers, babies and entire communities.
The grant money will also be used to build seven new maternity wards. In the long term, equipped and staffed maternity centres can be used to support other health initiatives, such as disease prevention and vaccines.

The new maternity wards will be outfitted with medical equipment, access to clean water, and disposal systems for hazardous waste. This will significantly improve the health and survival rates of both mother and child.

With the help of dedicated staff, field volunteers and our many supporters, the story becomes much more hopeful. Two infants are born on the same day. The human baby was planned to arrive four years after the birth of the first child, and the child’s mother has had plenty of time to recover from her first birth. She visits the local maternity clinic where trained staff help her through some late-stage complications, and delivers a healthy baby.

A young mother poses with her infant in Walikale.

The chimpanzee’s mother will not be hunted for meat. The young chimp will not be left orphaned and starving, but, instead, will remain in the forest, learning and growing into a mature adult. Both babies and moms thrive.

Mother and infant are safe in the forest.

Program undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada. 
Projet réalisé avec l’appui financier du gouvernement du Canada agissant par l’entremise d’Affaires mondiales Canada.

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