FREETOWN (AFP) — Authorities and wildlife activists in Sierra Leone on Tuesday stepped up efforts to save chimpanzees from extinction in the impoverished west African state where they are traded for meat and as pets.
The government and the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone launched a campaign that will see the robust enforcement of an amended 35-year old law under which the illegal hunting of the primates will attract tough penalties.
"We are now going along with the Wild Life Act of 1972 which classified chimpanzees as endangered species and a fine of 1,000 US dollars (706 euros) or a jail term of two years will be imposed on anyone found in possession of chimpanzees," warned Bintu Kelfala, an education officer with the society.
Previously, the fine for capturing or taming chimpanzees as pets was the equivalent of just two dollars (1.4 euros).
In a statement, the campaign organisers identified "pet trade as a major problem in the decline of the chimpanzee population" since the 1980s.
An estimated 20,000 wild chimpanzees were in Sierra Leone in the 1970s but gradually declined "largely due to the bush meat trade, pet trade and trade for biomedical research", the conservationists' group said.
Human encroachment into the wild for farming has also played a role by reducing their habitat. A census will soon be conducted to determine the actual remaining population of the primates.
But Bala Amarasekaran, a leading Sierra Leonean wildlife enthusiast, who in 1995 set up the famous Tagucama Chimps Sanctuary on the outskirts of the steamy oceanside capital of Freetown, estimates that the numbers of the primates are down to around 2,000.
Kelfala said more wardens are being deployed to enforce the ban on the capture of chimpanzees.
In the 1970s the country was a major exporter of chimpanzees mostly for biomedical research institutions in Britain and Germany, said Kelfala.
The scheme to save the chimpanzees has been widely acclaimed by conservationists.
"It is basically a very good move: it would enable the law to be enforced and will punish those who perpetrate the crime," Amarasekaran told AFP.
"We have to make a number of test cases for those violating the law. Before this the fine was only about two dollars, which has now been increased to 1,000 dollars," he added.
But a pet dealer who asked not to be identified reacted: "I see no harm in either keeping chimps as pets or trading in them."
"After all, it is business and I don't believe the authorities who are saying that the chimp population is in decline," said the unperturbed trader.
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