By Tansa Moussa,
YAOUNDE (Reuters) - Cameroon and Nigeria plan to enlarge their protected forest areas and boost conservation programs to save a rare chimpanzee subspecies from going extinct because of hunting and habitat destruction.
Scientists say the Nigeria-Cameroon subspecies is amongst the most endangered of the chimpanzees, humanity's closest living relative, which lives only in Africa.
Nigerian and Cameroonian officials launched a five-year $14.7 million plan to try to rescue the ape, which has been relentlessly hunted to feed the thriving bush meat trade and seen the forests in which it dwells destroyed for logs or to make way for palm oil, rubber or banana plantations.
"The Nigeria-Cameroon subspecies is ... most endangered," Cameroon's wildlife minister Elvis Ngolle Ngolle told Reuters. "We ... must secure them for posterity. Let us ... ensure the conservation of these animals that share a large proportion of our genetic material."
It lives only in the rain forested area north of Cameroon's Sanaga River, and in dwindling forest fragments in the Niger Delta and other parts of southern Nigeria. Its population is estimated to be anywhere between 3,500 - 9,000 individuals left.
Cameroon plans to enlarge its protected areas by 10 million hectares (24.7 million acres), by creating 10 new parks or reserves that would boost the country's conservation area to 21 percent of its total land surface, from 19 percent.
There was no specific pledge from Nigeria, but Nigerian environment minister John Odey suggested the country would play its part in the joint rescue effort.
"Our conviction is that the proposed measures ... such as the protection of forest habitats and the control of hunting, will generate an increase in the chimpanzee population, and also benefit many other unique and endangered primates," he said.
The plan includes education programs for local communities and increasing staff such as park rangers on the ground. (Editing by Tim Cocks)