Saturday, September 14, 2002

FARMER CARES FOR CHIMPANZEE REFUGEES

Abandoned chimps highlight conservation challenges in West Africa
By CLAR NI CHONGHAILE The Associated Press 9/14/02 1:55 AM

GRAND LAHOU, Ivory Coast (AP) -- Jeremy John Mayar steps into his wooden pirogue and pushes off into the Bandama River. From a tiny island across the water, four waiting chimpanzees begin to holler.

The chimps are hungry -- their deep "ooh-oohs" echoing toward the thick green shroud of Azagny National Park behind Mayar. He pulls up, and eager arms snatch bananas and bread. A male named Ponkso tucks half a baguette under his arm and shakes Mayar's hand.

The four animals are tame chimps that have been abandoned, and their plight highlights the challenges facing conservationists in the tropical Guinean Forests.

Despite dwindling numbers of chimps and efforts to save what one expert called "man's closest cousins," abandoned chimps fall into a category all their own, unable to survive without human help and largely neglected by the conservation community.

There are only 39,000 western chimpanzees left in this region of an original 600,000. The western chimpanzee, one of four subspecies of the common chimpanzee, is already extinct in the wild in Benin, Gambia and Togo. It is almost extinct in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Guinea Bissau and Ghana.....

Removed from the wild, chimpanzees like Ponkso, Crecia, Mimi and Papu lack the skills to survive in their habitat, and their plight is often overlooked as conservationists focus on preserving endangered communities in the wild.

The national park is just across the water, but reintroducing Ponkso and his family there is not an option.

Because they lived with humans, they may carry diseases that could cause havoc among a wild population, Kormos said. Chimpanzees are territorial, and can attack newcomers. Ponkso and his family are also used to humans, and might not be wary enough in the wild.

Ponkso and Crecia were among an original 20 brought to the island, near the colonial town of Grand Lahou in West Africa's Ivory Coast, from a viral research center in neighboring Liberia over two decades ago.

They have two children -- a daughter, Mimi, and an 18-month-old son, Papu....

"When we have money, we buy them food. We don't want the chimpanzees to die," he said.