Chimpanzees in the heart of the Ugandan rainforest could become unlikely victims of Scotland’s Covid-19 crisis, reports Sandra Dick

Gathered under a thick canopy of branches and surrounded by the wild sounds of Uganda’s Budongo rainforest, our closest cousins are understandably oblivious to the current health crisis.

Until now, the major threat to our wild chimpanzee relatives has come from the risk of deadly snares and deforestation.

However, concern is mounting over risks posed by the global pandemic and its impact on the Scottish zoos that have helped support the chimpanzees in their Ugandan home for the past

15 years.

With the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park near Kingussie closed due to the Covid-19 outbreak,

a call has now gone out for public support to help protect future funding for the Budongo chimpanzee project and the society’s other conservation work.

It comes against concerns that Covid-19 impact on trade and movement may leave desperately poor communities living on the fringes of the Budongo forest with little alternative but to resort to previous methods of hunting using snares to get by.

“This lockdown has had a huge impact on what we do, on the revenues we receive, and this has greatly impacted the work,” said Budongo FCS director Dr Fred Babweteera in a video released by RZSS.

“During this lockdown, because of the reduced incomes of the local communities we expect a number of people to turn their attention and focus to the forest for survival.”

The RZSS’s link with Budongo Conservation Field Station in East Uganda began in 2005 and is the biggest and longest-running of its

23 conservation projects. In tribute to the work being carried out there, Edinburgh Zoo named its 6 million chimpanzee house The Budongo Trail when it opened in 2008.

However, after closing its doors to visitors in March, Edinburgh Zoo is relying on the support of animal lovers to help pay its £55,000 monthly food bill. The Highland Wildlife Park has also launched public appeals for donations to help feed its animals.

Funding from the RZSS makes up the bulk of the chimpanzee initiative's annual income and is spent on a range of projects aimed at protecting chimp numbers and supporting local communities.

Classed as an endangered species, chimpanzees once numbered more than a million across Africa. However, by the 1960s numbers in the wild had plunged. It's estimated only between 170,000 and 300,000 chimpanzees remain in the wild.

Numbers in Budongo have increased from around 600 in 1990 to around 800 now. Two family groups of chimps - the Sonso and Waibira - number around 200 and are currently at the forefront of the Field Station?s research work.

As well as a base for researchers to study the behaviour of the Budongo chimpanzees, the field station has launched a series of farming initiatives to support local communities living alongside the forest.

Farmers have been shown how to swap the kind of crops they grow from ones that are particularly tempting to chimpanzees, such as sweet potatoes, to others that can bring a better yield, while hunters have been given goats in return for removing their snares and, in some cases, turned gamekeeper by joining “snare patrols” on forays into the forest to recover traps and snares.

“People don’t hunt chimp directly, but chimps sometimes get caught in snares intended for bushmeat, such as gazelle, and that creates serious problems,” said Dr Helen Senn, head of conservation at the RZSS. “Lots of cases at the field station are of chimps having had limbs amputated.

“In return for a pledge not to go to forest to hunt, people are provided with goats and other assistance to improve their livelihoods.

“Another threat to the chimpanzees is deforestation – sugar cane plantations are a big threat that encroach on the forest.”

Loss of habitat can force chimpanzees to venture closure to villages in search of food, sometimes raiding farmers’ crops and raising the risk that hungry or angry chimpanzees – five times stronger than a human – might attack people.

They are also under threat from diseases that can be spread by human contact; a respiratory infection swamped both Sonsa and Waibira communities of chimpanzees last year, affecting around three-quarters of animals and leaving three dead.

As well as helping to boost chimpanzee numbers, projects led by the Budongo field station have helped provide new skills for local communities, such as hairdressing, to help bring in alternative income.

“One really noticeable issue was the time people had to spend guarding crops at the forest edge,” added Dr Senn.

“If they grew something chimps find particularly tasty, they had to sit there most of the day guarding their crops when they could be earning other money.

“A lot of communities are very poor, with many people earning less than $1 a day (82p). In such extreme poverty every small difference makes a big difference. Supporting people to earn that bit more means they might be able to send their children to school.”

The Budongo project, based in a former sawmill, also carries out a range of other monitoring tasks involving biodiversity research and analysis of the general health of the forest.

The Budongo chimpanzees recently featured on BBC1’s nature programme, Primates, alongside St Andrews University-based researcher Cat Hobaiter. An expert in chimpanzee behaviour, she has decoded their signals and gestures and concluded that the Budongo Forest chimps have a repertoire of 80 gestures that enable them to communicate with each other.

"They are an incredibly charismatic species, a beautiful animal and our nearest living relative," said Dr Senn.

"But there are a whole lot of threats facing chimps."

l To support the work of the RZSS, go to www.rzss.org.uk/support-us/