FREETOWN - Deforestation is threatening Sierra Leone's wild chimpanzee population, west Africa's second largest, the country's deputy forestry minister told a meeting of wildlife experts Tuesday.
"Sierra Leone is designated as one of the 25 biodiversity hotspots and one of the highest priorities of primate conservation in the world but unfortunately one of the most severely deforested in the subregion," Lovell Thomas told the three-day international workshop which opened in Freetown on Tuesday.
The deputy minister said the impoverished country's forest cover was only five percent of what it was 100 years ago.
"Unsustainable resources are continuing to exert extreme pressure on the environment, leading to over-harvesting of timber, expansion of grazing and slash-burn agriculture and continuing deforestation, forest degradation and soil erosion," he said.
Thomas noted that while a legal framework was in place, penalties were weak and there was very little capacity for law enforcement due to lack of resources.
"There is a need to create value for Sierra Leone and for individual communities through the protection of chimpanzees and their habitat," he said.
Bala Amarasekaran, program director of the Sierra Leone-based Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, said a 2010 census counted some 5,500 chimpanzees, with
many living outside protected areas.
The figure was double that estimated in 1981, meaning that while 75 percent of west Africa's chimpanzees have disappeared in the past 30 years Sierra Leone has increased its chimp population, Amarasekaran said.
It remains second in west Africa after neighbouring Guinea, he noted.
The $230,000 (160,000 euro) survey, carried out between January 2009 and May 2010, was the first nationwide study ever taken in the country on the most endangered of Africa's four chimpanzee subspecies.
In Sierra Leone it is an offence to keep chimps as pets, and violators risk being jailed for up to five years according to the country's penal code.
The workshop is aimed at developing a conservation plan for the chimps.
Image: bigmikesndtech / via Flickr