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New technologies have facilitated exciting breakthroughs. By using DNA analysis of fecal samples, we can for the first time determine the paternity of many of the chimps, allowing us to examine the relationships between males and their offspring. We know that females avoid mating with their brothers and sons, but now we'll be able to learn whether an incest taboo exists between fathers and daughters as well.

Unfortunately, some of the news coming out of Gombe is distressing. Growing human pressures on the park threaten the chimpanzees' very existence. Unlike the vast swaths of forest that still surround chimpanzee populations in central Africa, Gombe National Park is only eight miles long and one to two miles wide, lying at the far eastern edge of the chimpanzees' natural range. When I arrived in 1960, the reserve was surrounded by large tracts of undisturbed forest that stretched to the east and south, with strips of forest to the north that linked the Gombe chimps to those in nearby Burundi. That habitat outside the park has all but vanished. New maps produced by Gombe researchers clearly show that it has become a 13.5-square-mile patch of forest surrounded by farms and denuded hillsides.

Though small villages have always existed in the area, the population density rose dramatically during the past decade, fueled by waves of refugees fleeing bloody civil wars in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The United Nations estimates that nearly a million have escaped from Burundi alone, with thousands settling in camps and villages in the Kigoma region around Gombe. The growing demand for wood, food, and charcoal has led to illegal logging and the snaring of wildlife within the park.

Yet it's the loss of the surrounding forest that poses the greatest threat. Gombe was once home to about 150 chimpanzees in three communities. Today, that number has dwindled to about a hundred. Although the main study group, known as the Kasakela community, has maintained its population of about 50 individuals, the northern and southern groups, which once foraged outside the park, are in decline. Only two or three adult males are left in the southern group. Unless we can enlarge existing habitat corridors linking the park to communities in the north, the Gombe chimpanzees could succumb to disease or inbreeding within decades.

It doesn't have to end that way. We have the good will of most of the people living near the park, which means the enlarged corridors may someday be a reality. Researchers have learned that if villagers leave the stumps on the bare hillsides rather than hacking at them for firewood, the miombo woodlands will regenerate within five years. Patches of resprouted trees now border the lakeshore. Conservation education and micro-loans to women who practice sustainable farming are beginning to have an impact.

Perhaps the most important thing we've learned at Gombe is how similar we are to these creatures, with whom we share between 95 and 98 percent of our DNA. As we watch their numbers dwindle and their forests fall, their legacy becomes as clear as a Gombe stream: As they go, so, one day, may we.

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