Chester Zoo will head out to find new species in Nigeria’s largest National Park

headerGashaka Gumti is known as a biodiversity hotspot and is the biggest national park of Nigeria out of its seven national parks. A team is heading out to this remote and mountainous region in Nigeria to find out what species are habituating in a place where very few surveys have been conducted. It is located in the eastern part of Nigeria on the border on Cameroon.

The team from Chester Zoo is the first team to carry out the very first assessment on biodiversity in Gashaka Gumti. A team that consists of twelve members will head out to Nigeria’s Gashaka Gumti national park in late March and stay for an estimated two weeks. Gashaka Gumti is said to be home to the last viable population of the endangered Nigeria Cameroon chimpanzee or Pan troglodytes ellioti.

“Obviously it would be great to find a big, sexy bug or frog but it is hard to tell you how likely that will be because we do not know what is there. But there is a good chance that there are a lot of things there that we currently do not know about. Whether it is a brightly colored big thing or not, we will have to wait and see,” states the director general of Chester Zoo, Mark Pilgrim.

Mark Pilgrim explained that Chester Zoo has been funding the core support facilities a research field camp in the park for more than ten years already, but is only now getting directly involved. “The field camp was mainly set up to look at and protect the Nigerian chimpanzee, which is a sub-population of chimpanzee,” Dr Pilgrim said. The Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee is already under threat. Over the past two to three decades, species have been experiencing a very high population reduction. Conservationists say that the population reduction has been caused by high levels of exploitations made by humans that eventually led to loss of habitat and degradation of habitat. The population summed is estimated to be in the region of 6,500, with up to 1,500 found in the Gashaka Gumti National Park. The endangered Cameroon Chimpanzee is one of four subspecies of the primate, although some recent study suggests that the differences between the subspecies are too small to warrant such classifications. The camp allows around 20 students annually to work on projects researching the area’s population of primates, led by Professor Volker Sommer from University College London.

Mark Pilgrim said that the presence of the research projects was “what helps protect the forests”. “By having these strange foreigners wandering around, looking for primates is what keeps the forest safe. Of course, the flagship research remains the Nigerian chimpanzee, which is what makes the area so special and important. But because the zoo has wider expertise than that, we are taking out a range of experts to also look at the frogs, birds, small mammals etc. because those areas have had very little in the way of surveys in the past.” As the zoo would become more involved in the field project, Doctor Pilgrim said that it was also an opportunity to widen the focus of the research carried out from the camp.

Doctor Pilgrim hoped the information assessed during the field trips will allow partnerships to be forged with scientists working in Universities in Nigeria. “For example, it may be that we turn up a number of strange beetles that we do not have the expertise to identify,” he suggested. This will be an intense, short trip but there will be more follow-up trips to get some really strong scientific papers out of the project,” Pilgrim said.

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