Theory versus Reality: How Biodiversity Indicators Were Re-Evaluated in The Gishwati-Mukura National Park

Featured Image Caption: Chimpanzees were thought to be a critical species in the Gishwati-Mukura National Park, but a recent study has shown otherwise. (Image Source: “Chimpanzee” by Nigel Hoult, licensed under CC BY 2.0).

Reference: Sun, P., Umuntunundi, P., & Wronski, T. (2022). Species richness, relative abundance and occupancy of ground‑dwelling mammals denote the ineffectiveness of chimpanzee as flagship species. Mammalian Biology.

The Gishwati-Mukura National Park is located in western Rwanda and is characterized by steep slopes, low mean annual temperatures that stay between 15 and 17 °C, and high mean annual rainfall, with about 1200 to 1500 mm of rain each year. Although fragments of forest in this National Park have suffered from severe deforestation, it has been found to hold significant biodiversity, including more than 250 plant species, 200 bird species, and 3 primate species.

Conservation efforts have accomplished the reforestation of more than 6 km2 of montane forest in this national park and it has been highly thanks to their ambassador, or flagship, species: the chimpanzee.

Image Caption: This is part of the Gishwati-Mukura National Park. As you can see and as was stated previously, this national park is characterized by steep slopes and high mean annual rainfall, as is evidenced by the wide river that crosses through it. (Image Source: “Minister Biruta visit Environmental Protection Investments across Rwanda” by Ministry of Environment – Rwanda, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0).
What Is A Flagship Species?

Flagship species are species selected to act as ambassadors for a particular campaign or environmental cause. It is generally considered that, if you achieve the conservation of this flagship species, the status of many other species that share its habitat—or are vulnerable to the same threats—may also be improved.

In the Gishwati-Mukura National Park the biggest threat is deforestation—and, as Eastern chimpanzee have been identified as flagship species in other forests facing deforestation in Africa, the Ministry of Environment of Rwanda considered chimpanzee to be their flagship species as well.

But Are Chimpanzee Really A Flagship Species For The Gishwati-Mukura National Park?

Well, the simple answer is no.

For 9 months, a group of scientists used camera traps (cameras set up to take pictures or videos of species moving in front of them) in both forests, capturing 258 photos of 8 species in the Gishwati Forest and 242 photos of 6 species in the Mukura Forest. The relative abundance of the endangered Easter chimpanzee was found to be above what was expected for both forests, yet no larger herbivore or carnivore species were observed in either forest. Moreover, the only carnivores detected were small- to medium-sized, suggesting that populations of medium-sized predators have increased with the removal of larger, top carnivores. This categorizes the Gishwati-Mukura National Park as a ‘depleted forest’, which is just a fancy way of saying that habitat and species loss are as bad as they can possibly be for this ecosystem.

It seems that, perhaps, the prioritization of the wrong flagship species has resulted in the neglect of other mammalian species, leading to the depletion of entire functional guilds in the food chain of the Gishwati-Mukura National Park. These scientists suggest that the flagship species of this ecosystem be re-evaluated, and that the proliferation of small- and medium-sized predators and the absence of large herbivores like ungulates be studied in function of the current deforestation trends observed in this Rwandan National Park in order to better conserve the montane forest habitats found in it.

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Andrea Valcarcel

Having graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Biology from Thompson Rivers University (BC, Canada), I am currently working as the head of an Oceanic Lab in the Dominican Republic while also being an MSc candidate in Ecology and Environmental Sciences. My research so far has been mostly focused on corals and marine mammals and the effects climate change may have in their overall behavior and survival. When not monitoring marine ecosystems, you can find me volunteering with my therapy dog and reading romance and fantasy novels. Twitter: @andreavalcar

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