“Habituate” is a common word used around Virunga, but many of our readers don’t know what this word means or how the habituation process works. Simply put, the word means getting wild animals used to being around people. Virunga, for instance, has habituated gorillas and non-habituated gorillas. The chimpanzees of Tongo (west of park headquarters) have been hunted for the past two decades, making the habituation process that began a year ago quite difficult.
“At the beginning of the habituation process, they were so scared of us. When they saw us they would run away as fast as they could without making any noise or without communicating with each other, “ explains Alexis Mutakirwa , our Chimpanzee Habituation Officer. “All they wanted was to get away from us.”
Habituation of an animal is a psychological process that involves frequent and prolonged exposure to people. Initially, habituating chimpanzees had been used for research, but The Forgotten Parks began the process to enable chimp tourism in Tongo, a potentially significant source of revenue for the park and conservation in Virunga.
A Little History
Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) first habituated the chimps in Tongo in the late 1980’s. During that time, there was no other area where chimpanzees had been habituated for tourism without the use of artificial inducement, such as food or reproduced chimpanzee calls. Although chimp habituation is much easier to do when it involves providing food, FZS did not employ this tactic as it could lead to behavioral change and it establishes a rapport between chimpanzees and humans that is based on dependency.
For three years chimp tourism in Tongo was vibrant and functional with revenue benefiting both the park and the community around Tongo. However, in 1993, civil unrest came to the DRC and forced FZS to pull out of Tongo for two decades, putting a halt to chimp tourism.
Starting Over with Chimp Habituation
In September 2009 Frankfurt Zoological Society was able to return to Tongo and Alexis and his team of trekkers re-initiated the chimp habituation process starting with the re-opening of 80 km of trails in the dense Tongo forest to allow easy access to the chimps. The trails cut the entire forest from north to south and east to west; trails are about 200 meters apart. Alexis and his team then conducted a thorough animal census in the forest and they found about 30 chimpanzees, almost half of the number of chimps that were first habituated in the 1980’s. The civil wars, instability, and poaching took a toll on the chimp population.
In June 2010, the actual re-habituation process started. Waking up before sunset, Alexis and his team would go into the forest being careful to be extremely silent as they approached the chimps. Once they reached the chimps, they would surround them, covering the entire area where the animals had nested for the night. They used specific sounds and submission gestures. The trekkers did this every day for an entire year. Gradually the chimps became more familiar with human presence and at one point stopped running away.
“We noticed that some of the older chimps remained calm when we approached them. They were the same chimps that were habituated in late 1980’s. The younger ones saw that and adopted the same behavior. This definitely made our work easier,” explains Alexis.
In April 2011 Alexis and his team began to take people other than trekkers into the forest so they could get used to all types of people with different skin color. The chimps are now fully habituated, comfortable with human presence and are now ready to welcome tourists. The trekkers will continue to monitor the health of the chimpanzees and educate the local people of the importance of having this community of chimps in the Tongo forest.
The chimp habituation project is part of The Forgotten Parks initiative. Chimp conservation and chimp tourism can benefit both the local population and the park’s wildlife. The Forgotten Parks strives to prove the importance of wildlife as a natural resource and decrease the population’s dependency on the forest. This initiative reflects FZS’ comprehensive approach to nature conservation; we nurture a harmonious and mutually beneficial relationship between the forgotten parks of the DRC and its people.