As tens of thousands of refugees crowd into the area around Virunga National Park in the warn-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the animals that already lived there are getting squeezed out their native habitats. Some of them apparently aren't too happy about it. Incidents of chimpanzee attacks on humans are reportedly on the rise—as are the number of unhelpful rumors about the apes.
The chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes troglodytes) aggression, which has resulted in at least one child's death, seems to stem from stress. Klaus Zuberbuhler, scientific director of the Budongo Conservation Field Station in Uganda, told New Scientist that chimpanzees can display mistrust and antagonism when they are forced into new situations. Throughout the region chimpanzees' forest habitat has been chopped down for firewood, forcing them to venture into human settlements in search of food.
"Chimpanzees can become aggressive or dangerous if their habitat is threatened," Emmanuel de Merode, director of Virunga National Park, told television channel France 24. "They are used to living alongside people in the forests, but the human population here is continually increasing and this is affecting their habitat."
Park rangers have the right to kill aggressive chimpanzees, but de Merode says they don't want to resort to such measures because they feel that the animals are innocent victims of the region's political turmoil. The rangers can't move the chimps either, because the militias make such operations too risky.
Rumors about the chimpanzee attacks have locals on edge. Worldcrunch, for instance, recently reported that chimpanzees have killed 10 people and wounded 17 (numbers that can't be confirmed), and quoted a village chief who believes chimps are "avenging themselves." Conservationists say the chaos from the fighting makes it hard to quell such rumors, which put the chimpanzees at risk from a scared populace. Teaching people how to act around chimpanzees could help reduce further violence; humans acting aggressively toward chimps makes them respond in kind, Alison Mollon, DRC project lead for the Frankfurt Zoological Society, told New Scientist. Instructive flyers about chimpanzees might help, but the violence makes it unsafe for workers to distribute them.
In related news, conservationists have found evidence that chimpanzees are being eaten as part of the bushmeat trade in nearby Uganda. "We did not think Ugandans were eating primate meat but we are starting to observe that monkeys and chimps are being eaten, Lily Ajarova of the Ngamba Chimpanzee Sanctuary told IPS News Agency. She attributed the newfound taste for primate to an influx of 16,000 Congolese refugees who, she said, ate monkey meat in their home country as well as to the region's extreme poverty, which has forced both the refugees and Ugandans to depend on game meat for protein. The Uganda Wildlife Authority has issued warnings that eating unregulated and uninspected bushmeat could lead the spread of zoonotic diseases such as Ebola.
Photo: A chimpanzee at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda. By Garrett Ziegler via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license