Local Communities Hold the Key to Protecting Chimpanzees

Written By: Kari-Lyn Danyluk, JGI Canada Volunteer
Category: From The Field

Dr. Shawn Lehman, professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto, JGI Canada board member and an expert on primate ecology and conservation, believes JGI Canada’s Delivering Healthy Futures project will improve the lives of both human and chimpanzee communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). We recently spoke to Dr. Lehman to better understand the plight of chimpanzee populations in the DRC and how the community conservation approach protects them.

Q: Why are chimpanzees endangered?

SL: The situation for chimps in the Congo is quite serious, but we need to understand that humans peacefully co-existed with chimps for 100,000 years. It’s only been in the last 100 years that we have caused a sudden (in an evolutionary time frame) increase in pressures. Humans are hunting chimps for meat, not for their own consumption but to sell for profit, largely to logging camps. There is very little regulation for hunting or forestry management. Chimps have what we refer to as a slow-life history; a typical female has only one baby every 5-9 years who remains dependent on its mother for longer than most mammals. They simply cannot replenish their population quickly enough.

Chimps are our closest relative, sharing about 98% of our DNA. Unfortunately, this also means that they are vulnerable to disease outbreaks that affect humans.An Ebola outbreak between 2001 and 2002 killed an estimated 5000 gorillas and approximately 83% of the chimps in one region along the borders of Gabon and Congo.

The good news is in the bigger historical picture. Chimps have been endangered for years, but interventions have prevented them from falling into extinction. There are lots of things we can do to help their populations recover.


This infant chimpanzee was found clinging to his mother’s lifeless body who was a victim of poaching.

Q: What are some of the solutions JGI Canada is working on?

SL: What we found is that creating parks and protected zones chafed relations with local communities and didn’t create the significant changes we were looking for. Our approach is based on research that shows that international aid organizations are much more effective when there is buy-in at the local level. We work closely with communities and ask, What do you need? How can we help? When we ask those kinds of questions, maternal and infant health comes up immediately as a big problem these communities are facing. By helping with medicine and health care, we see immediate benefits to the chimpanzees. Someone who is pushed to the ends of their resources by medical bills or the loss of a spouse can easily trap, kill and sell a chimp or cut down a tree to sell for wood. If we can help reduce some of that strain, the entire ecosystem benefits.

Q: Were there any unexpected results?

SL: We were pleasantly surprised by how supportive and energized the communities were to work with. Under our previous round of funding, schools were identified as a priority. We were able to help build some new schools and improve others, and we found that people were just overjoyed to have better schools. It relieved the pressure of struggling to get their kids educated. Better hospitals and health care helps everyone, not just pregnant women and babies. When we improve access to health care, we create jobs and attract specialists and experts to communities that wouldn’t have them otherwise.

children school drc
After the school was rebuilt attendance went from 200 to 700. Such a dramatic rise in school attendance required us to build two additional buildings to accommodate the students.

Q: Do you find that people in the habitat-adjacent communities appreciate the need for protecting the chimp habitat?

SL: When you’re dealing with farmers, they think about three things: good weather, the land, and water supply. One of our success indicators is when we can shift attitudes and help people understand that chimpanzees help disperse seeds, which helps preserve the forest, which helps to prevent erosion and protect the water supply, and that we’re all in a big interconnected ecological circle. It’s not unlike the attitudes you encounter on Canadian farms, where coyotes are seen as a nuisance rather than as integral components of the food chain and ecology. It’s always better to co-exist with nature instead of trying to fight it.

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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