In conversation: Dr Matthew McLennan from BCCP

17 July 2023


To celebrate World Chimpanzee Day, we recently spoke with the project director of the Bulindi Chimpanzee and Community Project, one of Born Free’s partners in Uganda.

A photo of a chimpanzee sitting high up in the branches of a green tree

The Bulindi Chimpanzee and Community Project (BCCP) was launched in western Uganda in 2015, to protect the region’s circa 300 wild chimpanzees from the extensive deforestation that was occurring. The aim of the project is to protect highly threatened eastern chimpanzees, living in the unprotected Budongo-Bugoma corridor, by protecting habitats and identifying sustainable human-wildlife co-existence strategies. 

Dr Matthew McLennan

Why did you become a chimpanzee conservationist?

Since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by chimpanzees. At university I trained in anthropology and primatology; when I finally got the chance to study wild chimpanzees in Uganda (in 2006), I wanted my research to have strong conservation value. My idea was to study chimpanzees living in unprotected habitat around villages to see how they adapt to increased contact and conflicts with their human neighbours. I didn’t know then that I’d spend my career conserving these ‘village chimpanzees’!

My transition to full-time conservationist was in response to the plight of the group of chimpanzees I was studying. In just eight years over 80% of their forest home was cut down and converted to farmland, local tolerance of the chimps was at rock bottom, and the future of the chimpanzees seemed bleak. In 2015, BCCP was born to try to address these challenges. Our immediate objective was to support local people to find alternatives to clearing the remaining forest and help them accommodate living alongside the chimpanzees.

“I’m very proud of the positive impacts our programmes are having, both for chimpanzees and local communities.”

Why are chimpanzees important?

Chimpanzees play a critical role in all ecosystems they inhabit, for example as important seed dispersers. In some habitats, chimpanzees are important predators that impact local populations of monkeys and other mammals. Like all great apes, chimpanzees are a charismatic flagship species: efforts to conserve them also help conserve countless other species in the ecosystem and helps protect large areas of habitat.

Two chimpanzees sitting in a tree

Adult female Peace and her infant

What are their main threats?

Sadly, chimpanzees are declining across tropical Africa due to a combination of human activities and impacts like habitat loss, hunting and diseases. BCCP works in a region of western Uganda known as the ‘Budongo-Bugoma corridor’ (so-called because it lies between the Budongo and Bugoma forest blocks). Here, about 300 chimpanzees live in a completely unprotected environment, in remarkably close contact with a fast-growing human population across an area of about 386mi2 (1000km2). These chimpanzees are highly threatened by extensive habitat loss, conflicts with local people, advancing urbanisation and infrastructure development.

Chimpanzees are a challenging species to conserve where they live close with people. They’re highly intelligent and adaptable. When their forests and food trees are cut down, they’ll switch to feeding on people’s crops. If they’re harassed, they can behave aggressively in return. They pose an undeniable threat to children’s safety. This is the reality across the entire area where we work, where many people view chimpanzees as dangerous and destructive to local livelihoods. It’s important to remember that these conflicts are driven primarily by poverty: the region’s forests have been cut down by people seeking to improve their livelihoods and secure a better future for their families.

What actions are BCCP taking?

Our approach recognizes that conserving the chimpanzees is only possible if local people’s lives are improved considerably, and interventions must be long-term. We’ve developed a variety of integrated programmes that address the needs and priorities of local people, for example tree planting and coffee farming as alternative livelihoods; water wells and boreholes to provide communities with safe, clean water away from the forest streams where people run into chimpanzees; and energy cook stoves that reduce fuel consumption.

Education outreach includes sponsoring school children and inter-school quiz competitions and sports events; village savings loan associations increase resilience against crop losses; and a popular ‘chimpanzee football league’ sponsors local teams with kits and tournaments.

In parallel, we conduct primatological monitoring of the region’s chimpanzees and support landowners to conserve and enrich remaining natural forest. Today, our programmes reach about 250 villages and cover most of the chimpanzees’ range in the Budongo-Bugoma corridor.

Two chimpanzees holding and eating fruit

Chimpanzees enjoying their food!

What have been your main successes?

I’m very proud of the positive impacts our programmes are having, both for chimpanzees and local communities. I’ll give two examples:

We currently monitor six chimpanzee groups; the chimpanzees in these groups – which comprise over half the regional population – are individually identified and named. Our team of trained local ‘Chimp Monitors’ make daily records including which chimpanzees are seen, their health status, ranging, foods eaten, and so on.

Daily monitoring helps protect the chimpanzees and is reassuring for local people who feel safer knowing the monitors are present. The Chimp Monitors are the first point of contact in case residents have concerns or complaints about the chimpanzees. Our intention is to expand this monitoring effort to include all the ‘village chimpanzees’ regionally and monitor the population over the long-term.

Secondly, our support for forest owning families has also been successful at conserving natural habitat for the chimpanzees. In brief, we sponsor schoolchildren of families willing to conserve forest. Because of this programme, about 260 acres of riverine forest has been safeguarded (and is regenerating) – for four of the chimpanzee groups we monitor, this comprises the majority of their remaining habitat. At the same time, this initiative enables lots of local children to finish their schooling – some of these children are the next generation of landowners who’ll ultimately be responsible for maintaining habitat for chimpanzees in the future. We hope to expand this programme in coming years to safeguard more unprotected forest for additional groups of chimpanzees.

Why are communities so important in conservation?

Conservation won’t work unless the needs and priorities of the people who coexist with wildlife are properly addressed. These people often incur substantial costs from living with wildlife, which can lead to intolerance and resistance to conservation. In our case, BCCP was established to conserve chimpanzees, but most of what we do is about supporting people, enhancing their livelihoods and quality of life. We prioritise getting to know the local people; we attend community events, mitigate in conflicts, and strive to be humble, respectful, and understanding in all our interactions with local communities. This approach paves the way for mutual understanding and creates a willingness among residents to engage with our objectives and programmes.

What is your hope for the future?

Sustainable coexistence between large animals like chimpanzees and local people outside protected areas requires long-term interventions, so BCCP is in it for the long-haul. It’s my hope that we’ll get the support we need to expand our reach to monitor and conserve all the chimpanzees living outside protected areas in western Uganda. If interventions such as ours mean that local communities and local governments view the chimpanzees’ presence as beneficial, the chimpanzees will survive in the long-term.

Most great apes in Africa live outside well-protected areas. The complex landscape where BCCP works offers a glimpse of the future for many chimpanzees. If we can save these chimpanzees living in the most challenging of circumstances, it provides hope (and a template) for conserving chimpanzees living alongside people elsewhere.

A photo of a chimpanzee sitting high up in the branches of a green tree

Alpha male, Howard

Your most memorable encounter with chimpanzees?

I’m lucky to have had many memorable encounters over the years! Back in the mid-2000s, when I was doing my PhD fieldwork, the chimpanzees I was studying at Bulindi were experiencing rapid habitat loss and disturbance. Groups of men cutting trees were everywhere in the small forest patches, and the chimpanzees were pushing back. The timber cutters and villagers would tell stories about being surrounded by angry chimpanzees, hooting, drumming, and thrashing vegetation.

It wasn’t long before my team and I were subjected to such displays of intimidation. On one memorable occasion, a field assistant and I met the chimpanzees at close range on a dense forest trail. We started back-tracking, looking for somewhere more open to step off the trail so that the chimps to pass. To our surprise, four big males followed right behind us – just a few metres away. Their hair was up, and they looked like they meant business. We began walking fast … but the chimps charged! Panicked, we dashed along the trail until we could get out of the forest into surrounding farmland: the chimps kept up with us the whole way!

Throughout this pursuit (which I later measured: they chased us for 200 metres), the chimps were silent. All we could hear was the pounding sound of their running. Only when we were out of the forest did the males start drumming and vocalising in triumph. We were quite shaken-up after this incident. Thankfully, the big males started getting used to seeing us in the forest and, while there were some other tense encounters, we weren’t chased out of it again!

Any advice for budding conservationists?

Make it happen. If you’re determined to make a difference, you will. There are so many ways we can get involved in conservation. Also, it’s important to recognize and celebrate our efforts and successes, even when these seem modest.

Your favourite thing about your job?

Spending time in the company of chimpanzees is always a privilege I’ll never take for granted. More generally, I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing positive changes because of our programmes. For example, it’s great to see unprotected forest regenerating because the landowners are now conserving it. And the support we get from most local residents, local leaders, and local government is very reassuring – it wasn’t always the case; it’s a sign we’re having a positive impact and our efforts are welcome.

And the weirdest thing about your job?

I’ve collected a lot of chimpanzee poo for research projects over the years. It’s like gold: it contains so much valuable information useful for conservation, for example about health, diet, physiology and genetics. I’ve personally collected, transported, and analysed a couple of thousand chimpanzee dungs! Even when I’m not collecting data for research, I have to suppress the impulse to stop and examine chimp poo when I see it. My friends and family find this amusing because I’m quite squeamish in other respects!

Why do you work with Born Free?

Born Free has been one of our key supporters from the early days of our project. Born Free places emphasis on the conservation and welfare of individual animals as well as whole populations, and that’s the same approach we take at BCCP. Each individual chimpanzee is valuable – none are expendable and their wellbeing matters.

Why is World Chimpanzee Day important?

Well, every day is World Chimpanzee Day for us at BCCP! But July the 14th is important internationally as a day to celebrate our closest relatives and raise awareness about the threats they face, and what we can all do to help. It’s also an opportunity to highlight the dedicated efforts of scientists and conservationists in Africa and around the world to ensure chimpanzees survive in the wild – and to support these projects through fund-raising and donations.

Anything you’d like to say to supporters?

I’d like to say HUGE thanks and chimpanzee ‘pant-hoots’ to all the many wonderful individuals, organisations and institutions who support us in so many ways – both in Uganda and internationally. THANK YOU!!

Images © BCCP