Outrage over rail project that has blasted chimp habitat with no protections in place for apes

·3-min read

Winning Consortium Simandou (WCS) blasted tunnels in the West African country’s Simandou mountains without including a plan to protect Western chimpanzees – and conservation groups say it will harm the already endangered species.

WCS, a railway company, is building a tunnel to export iron ore from a mine in Guinea, a country in West Africa. Rio Tinto, another mining company, plans to use the railway to export ore once the railway is built, according to a Reuters exclusive that was published this week.

The project has been underway for months, according to China Railway 18th Bureau Group Co Ltd, a construction company hired by WCS, saying on their website that they constructed on the hillside in May. Even though there was work underway in May 2021, Guinea officials didn’t recommend making a management plan for the chimpanzees until weeks later.

WCS told Reuters that no blasting took place until they got the necessary permits and environmental plans were approved.

"The WCS team is assessing environmental and social impacts through the ... ESIA process and will put in place appropriate mitigation measures prior to construction," WCS told Reuters. So far, the plans haven’t been public.

The Guinea’s mines ministry did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters. The Independent has also asked WCS and the mines ministry for comment.

Of the 52,800 Western chimpanzees, almost two-thirds live in Guinea. And experts say the blasts will threaten the chimpanzee population.

“The planned Simandou railway will fragment chimpanzee habitat over c.600km. This will not only lead in the short-term to habitat loss and disturbance, potential for collision, but also to other more long-term significant impacts such as fragmentation effects reducing the viability of the chimpanzee population,” Dr Genevieve Campbell, task force lead and senior associate at Re:wild, wrote to The Independent over email.

Based on other construction company reports, there are around 600 to 700 chimpanzees around the area WCS has built the tunnel.

There are different levels of endangered species, ranging from threatened to vulnerable.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a leading conservation group, has classified the Western chimpanzees as critically endangered, which is two steps away from extinction.

Beyond construction sites, other threats to the species include habitat loss, poaching and disease. These threats have led to 80 per cent loss of population from 1990 to 2014.

With rail projects underway, experts say the population is likely to continue dwindling.

"A loss like this is catastrophic, and confirms the recent findings that at least 84% of African primates’ natural habitat is likely to disappear in the next 30 years, unless we act now,” Gregg Tully, executive director of PASA, an alliance of 23 primate sanctuaries in 13 African countries including Guinea, wrote to The Independent over email.

After the WCS submitted environmental plans to the Guinean government in June, an environment ministry committee made 32 recommendations. But those plans are not public and therefore, it’s unclear if WCS’s plans fully protect the chimpanzees.

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