One of man's closest relatives, the pygmy chimpanzee (search), may be much closer to extinction than previously thought, a conservation group said Thursday.
A study by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (search) found that poaching and human encroachment into the animal's natural habitat had left far fewer pygmy chimpanzees — or bonobos — in Congo's Salonga National Park than previously thought.
"These initial results concern us greatly," said Peter Stephenson, the great apes expert for the group, which is known as the World Wildlife Fund in the United States. "If things are this bad here, we can assume that across the Congo (search), bonobos are in crisis."
Salonga reserve (search) — roughly the size of the Netherlands — could be the world's largest pygmy chimpanzee habitat, but authorities have been unable to monitor it adequately because of Congo's long civil war, the conservation group said.
"The war has had terrible consequences for the people and wildlife of the Congo basin," said Lisa Steel, who is working on the Salonga project.
Previously, up to 50,000 pygmy chimpanzees were thought to be living in the wild. The World Wildlife Fund hopes to revise the estimate early next year after analyzing the study's results.
Neighboring Rwanda twice invaded Congo, in 1996 and 1998, to hunt down Rwandan Hutu (search) combatants responsible for the 1994 genocide of more than a half-million minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
The second invasion triggered a war that involved at least four other African nations and killed an estimated 3.2 million people in eastern Congo, territory under Rwanda's wartime control.