African Wildlife Conservation

Researchers in Africa have discovered a huge population of ‘unusually large’ chimps who feast on leopards and giant snails in what is being described as the continent’s ‘last untouched wildernesses.

Scientists have discovered a huge mega-culture of chimps in Congo that feast on big cats and giant snails. Regular chimps, pictured, mainly eat fruit

Scientists have discovered a huge mega-culture of chimps in Congo that feast on big cats and giant snails. Regular chimps, pictured, mainly eat fruit

The previously unknown ‘mega-culture’ was found in the heart of the Bili-Uele forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo by researchers, who trekked thousands of miles dodging armed police and militia to get there.

And they were stunned to see the chimps eating leopard and huge African snails, whose shells they pound open on rocks.

Cleve Hicks, a primatologist based at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, said in The Guardian: ‘This is one of the few places left on Earth with a huge continuous population of chimps.

‘We estimate many thousands of individuals, perhaps tens of thousands.’ Unique customs and behavior across a vast area of 19,000sq miles were recorded by a series of motion-activated cameras.

Gangs of males were seen patrolling their territory and mothers showed their young how to use tools to eat swarming insects.

The camera traps also revealed an extraordinary range of other forest dwellers, including forest elephants, olive baboons, spotted hyena as well as red river and giant forest hogs, crested guinea fowl and aardvark.

‘We saw incredible amounts of wildlife on our camera traps, but we did not catch a single film of a human,’ said Hicks. ‘It remains one of the last untouched wildernesses in Africa.’

One camera even recorded its own destruction as it came under attack from a leopard, but all two dozen cameras were nearly lost when poachers invaded the area and burned the researchers’ camp.

Only a swift two-day rescue mission retrieved the footage. Hicks’s team first identified the existence of the Bili-Uele chimps in 2007 but their new survey, published this week in the journal Biological Conservation, reveals a vast, thriving mega-culture.

Elsewhere in Africa, human damage has fragmented the continent’s chimp population from many millions to just a few hundred thousand over the last century.

However, while the chimp numbers have apparently remained stable, the numbers of forest elephants have crashed by half due to poaching.

The slaughter, to feed the highly lucrative illegal ivory trade, mirrors the bloody picture across central Africa, where two-thirds of all forest elephants have been killed in the last decade.

The researchers fear increasing incursions into the virgin forest will draw in more hunters seeking to feed the bushmeat trade in the Congo basin that targets chimps and other animals.

Hicks said the Bili-Uele forest is in need of urgent help: ‘It is one of the last great expanses of the pristine African wilderness,’ he said.‘This is one of the few places on Earth with a huge, continuous population of chimps