Chimps take to crime rather than hunt for food, TCD study finds

Rwandan chimps raiding farms then retreating to safety of their rainforest preserves

The chimps’ efforts have been repeated by other species in these preserves including mountain gorillas, buffaloes, forest elephants and golden monkeys.

The chimps’ efforts have been repeated by other species in these preserves including mountain gorillas, buffaloes, forest elephants and golden monkeys.

Wed, Jun 18, 2014, 01:00

Light-fingered chimpanzees living in protected forests in Rwanda have taken to raiding farms for a free meal rather than bothering with their natural foods. They sneak in under darkness to grab stalks of maize before racing back to the safety of their preserves.

The chimps’ efforts have been repeated by other species in these preserves including mountain gorillas, buffaloes, forest elephants and golden monkeys, says Dr Shane McGuinness of the Trinity College Dublin Centre for Biodiversity Research in the school of natural science.

Many local farmers grow Irish potatoes and these are a particular favourite of the golden monkeys and the buffaloes, he said. “It is like going to the supermarket rather than having to hunt and gather,” he said.

Increasing damage

Dr McGuinness travelled by motorbike to visit farms surrounding the Gishwati Forest, interviewing farmers and collecting data about crops and the increasing damage by the chimps and other species. It is forcing hundreds of thousands of Rwandan farmers working lands next to preserves to change crops and alter practices to reduce losses, he said.

It can make for human-wildlife conflicts, where the animals often retain an edge. Tourists annually spend about €60 million to see gorillas in the wild. The government will punish farmers who threaten this income, so taking tough action against the animals is not on the cards, says Dr McGuinness.

The animals seem to have become aware of this, with gorillas and elephants sitting in maize fields and feasting on the fresh produce.

Dr McGuinness detailed his findings in the journal Human Dimensions of Wildlife. “The chimps are basically imposing a natural tax on farmers growing crops near the nutrient-rich soils of the forest,” he said.

The farmers are hemmed in by government demands for cash crops and a lack of money to grow alternative crops.