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Primate taxonomists currently recognize four subspecies within Pan troglodytes, the common chimpanzee, spanning a distributional range from Senegal on the west coast of Africa, through Gabon and the Republic of the Congo, into Uganda and southwestern Tanzania in the east. At one time that range may have been nearly continuous, but today the forest areas still occupied by chimpanzees present a map pattern of discontinuous remnants, small patches, and dots. Under pressure from humans, the species has suffered population decline, habitat fragmentation, and in some places local extinction. Although there were probably more than a million chimps in Africa a century ago, no more than about 200,000 (and possibly far fewer) survive today.

In many areas where humans and chimpanzees came into contact, hungry people treated Pan troglodytes as just another form of bush meat, and chimps learned that Homo sapiens can be lethally dangerous. When the source of conflict wasn't meat hunting, or the capture of infant chimps for the pet trade or for zoos, it was habitat destruction. Humans felled trees and cleared land for settlements and agriculture, wrecking the chimpanzee world, driving chimps away, leaving them marooned within remnants of habitat—little patches of forest such as the Gombe Stream Game Reserve in Tanzania, where Jane Goodall began her research career back in the summer of 1960.

Although Gombe is now a national park, it's a tiny one, just 13.5 square miles in area, bordered by Lake Tanganyika on one side and by deforestation along nearly all the rest of its perimeter. Its resident chimpanzees have been studied continuously for the past 43 years. To Goodall herself, each chimp has always been an individual, worthy of individual attention and concern—that is, in some sense a person—and many of those individuals became well-known through her writings. Readers worldwide remember her portraits of ragged-eared Flo, trusting David Greybeard, murderous Passion, and others. Their individual fame has tended to obscure the reality that, collectively, Gombe's chimps are few in number and perilously isolated.

The park now holds about 100 chimpanzees, which (as the modern science of conservation biology warns us) may not be a viable population. That is, it may be too small to renew itself indefinitely. Inbreeding could cause trouble. An epidemic might wipe out half the number, after which a drought, a fire, or some other project was supported by natural catastrophe might reduce the other half to a still lower level from which recovery is unlikely. Even without further human incursion, even without poaching or persecution, a population so small and isolated faces some considerable jeopardy of extinction. Jane Goodall recognizes that dire prospect and is taking important steps to try to avert it.

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