Rwanda's Edangered Chimpanzee Population Increases in Gishwati Forest

For the third time in less than a year, a scientific team managing Rwanda’s Gishwati Forest reports an increase in the population of endangered chimpanzees isolated in the small montane rain forest. Researchers with the Gishwati Area Conservation Program (GACP) have identified a baby chimpanzee born to Gihozo (ghee HOHZ oh), a prominent female in the Gishwati ape population.

The birth brings to 20 the number of identified East African chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) in the Gishwati Forest – also known as Rwanda’s Forest of Hope. That is a 54 percent increase from 13 apes in early 2008 when GACP began its chimpanzee field studies and forest restoration initiative in Rwanda’s Western Province. Increases to the Gishwati chimpanzee population were also reported last March and in August 2010.

“Without the hard work of our talented team and the great collaboration with the people of Rwanda, none of these chimpanzees would be alive today,” said Dr. Benjamin Beck, conservation director of Great Ape Trust, a U.S. organization that directs and supports GACP. “Trees are growing, chimpanzees are reproducing; we only have to provide protection and Mother Nature will rebound. But if we are not able to sustain our work, all will be lost.”

In addition to the expansion of the chimpanzee population, the protected area of Gishwati has increased an impressive 67 percent from 2,190 to 3,665 acres through the demarcation of legal boundaries and the annexation of illegally occupied land.

Dr. Keith Summerville is an associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Since 2010, Summerville and his students have assisted the Gishwati Area Conservation Program in forest planning and restoration.

“The birth of this chimpanzee is further evidence that at some crucial point, the future of these apes will depend on connectivity in the surrounding landscape,” he said. “Growing populations – even slow growing ones – can’t sustain themselves in small habitats forever. Sooner or later, these chimpanzees will need to disperse.”

The chimpanzee population in Gishwati consists of six adult males, five adult females, two adolescent females, one adolescent male, one juvenile male and five infants. Photos and short biographies about each ape (except the latest addition) are featured in a Meet The Chimpanzees section of the Great Ape Trust Web site, www.GreatApeTrust.org.

GISHWATI AREA CONSERVATION PROGRAM BACKGROUND

The Gishwati Forest Reserve’s history of deforestation extended over many decades. A forest that covered about 70,000 acres in 1930, was nearly depleted because of ill-advised large-scale cattle ranching projects, resettlement of refugees after the 1994 genocide, inefficient small-plot farming and the establishment of plantations of non-native trees. As a result, the area has been plagued with catastrophic flooding, erosion, landslides, decreased soil fertility, decreased water quality and heavy river siltation – all of which aggravate a cycle of poverty.

In late 2007, the President of Rwanda, His Excellency Paul Kagame, and Great Ape Trust Founder and Chair Ted Townsend of Des Moines, Iowa, pledged at the Clinton Global Initiative conference to create a “national conservation park” in Rwanda to benefit climate, biodiversity and the welfare of the Rwandan people. In early 2008, the Gishwati Forest Reserve in western Rwanda, disregarded for years by international conservation organizations, was chosen as the site of the future park – and the Gishwati Area Conservation Program (GACP) began.

In 2010, the Rwandan Ministry of Lands and Environment entered into a Memorandum of Understanding granting GACP responsibility for managing the protected forest while endorsing the most challenging element of the project – a 30 mile-long forest corridor connecting Gishwati to Nyungwe National Park.

Today, GACP provides secure and meaningful employment to 26 Rwandans, and is an economic engine in the communities surrounding Gishwati. Students and working adults in 14 schools and 10 cooperatives as well as officials of the Rutsiro District government are partnering with GACP to help restore Gishwati.