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Mahale

Mahale Mammals
Signature safari mahale .The mammalian fauna of Mahale can be loosely classified into three types on the basis of their habitat preferences. The existence of all three types in a single area is unusual and is one of Mahale’s defining characteristics, resulting from the complex mosaic of eco-zones found in the park.

  • Tropical rain forest animals, which include chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii), giant forest squirrel (Protoxerus stangeri), red-legged sun squirrel (Heliosciurus rufobrachium), brush-tailed porcupine (Atherurus sp.), Angolan black-and-white colobus monkeys (Colobus angolensis), bushy-tailed mongoose (Bdeogale crassicauda), banded mongoose (Mungos mungo), blue duiker (Cephalophus monticola) and Sharpe’s grysbok (Raphicerus sharpei);
  • Savannah animals, such as lions, Grant’s zebras, warthogs, and giraffes;
  • Species found in ‘miombo’ woodland, such as roan antelopes, sable antelopes, and Lichtenstein hartebeest.

A total of 82 species of mammals have now been recorded in Mahale Mountains National Park, which is about 70–80% of the projected total. Of the large mammals, only a handful remain to be found. The latter include greater kudu, southern or mountain reedbuck, and Harvey’s duiker. Some smaller mammals that have not yet been recorded but that almost certainly occur in Mahale include the marsh mongoose, Atilax paludinosus and Smith’s red rock hare, Pronolagus rupestris. By far the greatest number of unrecorded mammals will be bats, rodents and insectivores. Accumulation of new mammal records for the park will probably level out at around 115–120 species.

At least one species of large mammal, the Black rhinoceros, has been extirpated from the park. Although there are no records of this species in Mahale, the local Tongwe people have a name for it, Pela, and it almost certainly occurred in the past.

Long-term Studies of Wild Chimpanzees
Researchers from Kyoto University, Japan, have been studying wild chimpanzees in Mahale since 1965. The distribution of chimpanzees extends from western Africa (Senegal) to central and eastern Africa (Congo, Uganda, Tanzania). West Tanzania represents the most easterly extent of this distribution and it is home to the ‘eastern’ or ‘bald-headed’ subspecies, Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii. The other two sub-species are Pan troglodytes verus and Pan troglodytes troglodytes.

Chimpanzee research depends on habituation of the animals to be studied. This was initially achieved in Mahale by provisioning chimpanzees with sugarcane and bananas, but once good levels of habituation had been established researchers began to decrease the amount of bait, and by 1987 had completely abandoned provisioning. At present researchers are following chimpanzees that range freely in a large patch of forest (30 km²), searching for natural foods. By observing chimps in natural conditions, it has been possible to learn a great deal about their behaviour, ecology and social structure. Some particularly striking discoveries have included the use of tools (e.g., ‘fishing’ for termites using sticks) and medicinal plants, both of which were previously thought to be behaviours attributable only to human beings.

Medicinal Plant Use by Chimpanzees in the Wild
Because chimpanzees are so like us they are often used in laboratory experiments to find cures for human diseases. Field research is now also shedding light on how they cure some of their own diseases in the wild.

Ongoing, long-term field and laboratory studies in Mahale Mountains National Park have produced evidence that chimpanzees infected with roundworms (nematodes) use specific plants to help keep their infections under control, especially during the rainy season. It now appears that some of these plants have a chemical effect (e.g. Vernonia amygdalina) while others have a physical purging effect (e.g. Aspilia mossambicensis). They are used by chimps in different ways, for example:

  • Bitter-pith chewing: Chimpanzees carefully remove the leaves and outer bark from young shoots of Vernonia and chew on the exposed pith, sucking out the extremely bitter juice (picture panel). In a few well-documented cases, chimpanzees have been shown to recover their appetites, regain strength, lower parasite loads, and recover from constipation or diarrhoea within 24 hours of using this plant. Interestingly, this species is also used widely across Africa as medicine by many traditional human societies.
  • Whole leaf-swallowing: Chimpanzees use their lips to carefully remove one leaf at a time from the Aspilia plant, and pull it into their mouth using their tongue. This causes the rough, hairy leaves to fold up, accordion-style. Each folded leaf is then swallowed whole without being chewed. Leaves are evacuated whole and undigested in their faeces. It has recently been demonstrated that leaves swallowed in this manner physically remove adult worms that were previously attached to the wall of the large intestine. As many as 21 worms have been found trapped within the folds and attached to the surface of these leaves.