Our closest living relatives have suffered rapid population declines – and human activity is to blame
There are few animals that intrigue us quite as much as the chimpanzee, and with good reason. We share 98 per cent of our genes with these intelligent primates, making them our closest relatives. Affectionately known as chimps, they live in groups of several dozen individuals in the rainforests of Africa, where the thick canopy towers high above the dark jungle. They spend their days grooming each other on the forest floor or swinging from branch to branch in search of food. Sadly, chimpanzees have been listed as ‘Endangered’ by the IUCN for almost 20 years, and no conservation effort as yet has been successful in getting them out of the ‘danger zone’ and restoring populations to a safe level. In fact, the number of chimpanzees left in the wild has declined by at least 66 per cent over the last 30 years. It is not known exactly how many chimpanzees there are left in the wild, but estimates range from around 170,000 to 300,000 individuals. By spending their days picking at their favourite fruits and meandering through the forest, chimpanzees play an important ecological role. They are able to disperse the seeds that are too big for other animals to eat, helping to shape their environment and maintain biodiversity. As is the case with almost all endangered animals, the impact of humans is to blame. Once abundant throughout the rainforests and wet savannahs of Africa, human activities have meant that chimpanzees are now extinct in four African countries following high exploitation and habitat destruction. The remaining populations desperately need our help.
Just like us
Chimpanzees are charismatic and highly intelligent beings that live in a similar way to us. Studies have shown they develop intricate social structures and are keen to make friends, as well as climb the social ladder to gain positions of authority within their groups. In the same way humans make their beds each day (or at least they should), chimpanzees make a fresh sleeping nest high up in the trees every evening, constructed out of leaves. They also show emotional intelligence and are very caring toward members of their community, looking after each other’s young should they become orphaned or abandoned. Groups will form bonds with neighbouring groups and share food supplies in times of adversity. There are four subspecies split by location: central, west African, Nigeria-Cameroon, and eastern chimpanzees. There is little physical difference between them, but different communities of chimpanzee have their own cultures and habits that they learn from their elders and pass on to younger generations. With such a striking resemblance between man and ape, in both personality and looks, it is incredibly sad that the demise of our primate cousins is mainly down to our actions.
An uncertain future
Deforestation is arguably the leading cause of population declines; trees are being felled at an alarming rate and the land is being transformed for agricultural use and development. A loss of habitat means less food for chimpanzees and fewer places for shelter, leaving them vulnerable to predators and hunters. Logging can also lead to fragmentation – the breaking up of habitats – isolating individuals and splitting up social groups. The demand for bushmeat has also been increasing, with local people hunting the primates as a source of protein. A high demand for juveniles within the illegal pet trade has also encouraged the killing of adults in order to safely capture young chimps for sale on the black market. Poachers with their sights set on larger animals will often set snares and traps throughout the forests, but inadvertently catch chimpanzees in the process. As a result, these chimps can suffer from debilitating wounds or even die from infection. As the human population increases, so does the need for resources. In equatorial Africa many mining sites have opened, which have drawn large numbers of workers to the area and increased human encroachment on the chimp’s habitat. As they share so much of our DNA, chimpanzees are highly susceptible to human diseases, so being in such close proximity to humans is hazardous. At Jane Goodall’s research camp in Tanzania, many chimps have lost their lives to polio and the outbreak of Ebola has had a devastating impact on wild populations. A rise in tourism has seen an increase in the number of people coming into contact with chimpanzees, only increasing the risk of transmitting illness
Tackling the chimpanzee challenge
Donald Gow is the team leader for the Budongo Conservation Field Station, one of Africa’s leading conservation projects, run by Edinburgh Zoo
Why do you think chimpanzees are so endearing?
Chimpanzees are our nearest cousins, sharing over 95 per cent identical DNA. Like us, chimps have a long childhood and maternal and sibling bonds can persist through life. There are also close parallels between chimpanzee and human infants – their appetite for play, learning through observation and imitation, their need for reassurance and attention. Chimpanzees can also display a wide range of emotions like happiness and empathy and possess an almost human-like enjoyment of physical contact, laughter and community. Chimp non-verbal communication – hugging, patting, touching and aggressive behaviour – also appear in similar contexts to which they are seen in humans.
What are the major threats they face?
Threats differ from country to country, but one of the main threats is bushmeat snares, set for smaller forest animals, accidentally injuring and harming chimps. The species is also specifically targeted by poachers in some countries for the bushmeat trade. Habitat loss, encroachment and forest fragmentation are significant threats to chimpanzees as there are ever-increasing demands for land from the rapidly growing human populations – Africa currently has one of the highest human growth rates in the world. The pet trade, which involves the capture of infants and usually results in the death of their mothers and other group members, is also a threat, as are infectious diseases being spread from human to chimp populations – for example, Ebola is the main issue in some areas currently.
If chimpanzees were to become extinct, what would be the ecological impacts?
Staggeringly, only 15 years ago, two million chimps lived in the forests of 25 separate African countries; today only five countries have significant populations and chimps have totally disappeared from some countries. The total number of chimpanzees in the wild is most recently estimated to be between 172,700 and 299,700; however there is a lack of survey data in many regions. There are four subspecies and a wide range of behavioural differences exist between groups from different regions, so the loss of any one group represents a loss of cultural and biological heritage. A priority species, chimps are one of the most ecologically, economically and culturally important species on our planet. Chimps are integral to maintaining biodiversity in Africa.
What do you do to help?
The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) is celebrating ten years as the core funder of the Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS) in Uganda. One of Africa’s leading conservation projects and a world-leading centre for primate research, BCFS is also this year celebrating its 25th anniversary. BCFS is a unique conservation success story, which brings together scientists from all over the world, local people and a community of nearly 700 chimpanzees. The station combines cutting-edge research with practical action on the ground, all underpinned by local community involvement. A holistic approach, the project provides alternative livelihoods, conducts forest edge planting research and works with local schools. And it remains to this day one of the very few places in the world where wild chimpanzees are observed at close quarters in the wild.
Do you think they can be saved for the future?
Conservation work can be an uphill struggle and the odds can seem overwhelmingly stacked against a species. However, there are many dedicated people and organisations who are wholly committed to changing that. RZSS is one of those organisations and, whether it be through our ex-situ work with our chimp group at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo and our close cooperation with zoo colleagues throughout Europe, or in-situ work with chimps in Africa, we have the opportunity to really make a difference for this species. In the face of so many challenges there are success stories too, such as the formation of protected national parks, rehabilitation and release programs and the halting of hunting in particular areas.
How can ordinary people get involved?
RZSS is a conservation charity and receives no government funding. Instead we rely on money generated through our two visitor attractions – RZSS Edinburgh Zoo and RZSS Highland Wildlife Park – combined with fundraising activities, in order to connect people to nature and safeguard species from extinction. Our achievements, including our work with chimpanzees in the Budongo Forest, are down to the generosity of supporters just like you. Please consider a donation towards protecting endangered species and their habitats by visiting www.edinburghzoo.org.uk/support-us.
Saving the chimpanzee
These three organisations are leading the way for chimpanzee conservation
Located in Guinea, West Africa, this organisation has founded a dedicated Chimpanzee Conservation Centre. They employ a three-step approach to help the chimpanzees they work with. First, chimps are rescued either as orphans of the bushmeat trade or survivors of the pet trade. They then undertake a lengthy rehabilitation process, which can take up to ten years. For the first several years, the chimps need lots of care and are taken out on daily bush walks by volunteers and integrated with other chimps. Once this is complete, Project Primate releases the successfully rehabilitated individuals back into the wild. Lastly, the volunteers spend time educating the local communities about the important role chimpanzees play within the environment. Once chimps have been released, the Project Primate team have very little contact, to minimise the risk of disease transmission and increase their chance of survival in the long term.
To ensure the chimpanzee’s survival, it is vital to protect their habitat. That is exactly what the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation is doing in West Africa. Setting up eco-patrols to help stop illegal deforestation by farmers ensures the chimps have the best possible chance, and also helps to deter poachers from unlawfully taking the chimps. In addition, the Foundation undertakes regular bio-monitoring checks to form up-to-date habitat management plans. This means it can address any problems that arise in the chimp’s environment and ensure the quality of the habitat. Knowledge is power, and this group is dedicated to monitoring population trends and primate activity regularly.
The Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) was founded in the US in 1977, and continues Dr Goodall’s pioneering studies on chimpanzee behaviour — research that has transformed scientific perceptions of these endangered primates. Today JGI is a global leader in the effort to protect chimpanzees and their habitats, and is widely recognised for establishing innovative community-centred conservation and development programmes in Africa, as well as founding Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots, a global environmental teaching programme for young people that has groups in more than 130 countries. JGI UK was founded as a charity in 1988 with a mission to prevent the extinction of chimpanzees through research and community-focused conservation, alongside environmental and humanitarian education.
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