FREETOWN (AFP) — Sierra Leone has begun its first comprehensive census of wild chimpanzees, the head of the country's largest sanctuary for the primates said on Monday.
"It will cost 220,000 dollars (167,000 euros) and run for approximately 10 months," Balla Amarasekaran, head of the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, said.
Amarasekaran explained that the chimp count would help answer key questions about the population and the habitat of the great apes in Sierra Leone and could even set the stage for reintroductions.
"It is estimated that no more than 2,000 chimpanzees currently reside in Sierra Leone's forests but that number was culled from an informal survey carried out in 1981," he told AFP.
Amarasekaran, whose sanctuary on the outskirts of Freetown is the largest in Sierra Leone, said the impact of the country's ruinous civil war and the rapid destruction of forest cover had led some experts to fear that chimpanzees could cease to exist in the wild within 50 years.
Sierra Leone is struggling to get back on its feet after a decade-long civil war from 1991-2001 in which some 120,000 people were killed and thousands were mutilated.
The West African country is home to one of the most endangered chimpanzee species, the Western Chimpanzees who live in the hills above the capital Freetown, according to Amarasekaran.
"We want to protect the existing wild populations and increase knowledge and understanding of these amazing animals," he told AFP.
The chimp census is a joint project of the agriculture ministry's forestry division, the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA) and national and international non-governmental organisations.
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