Why Chimpanzees Are Disappearing and What We Can Do

Chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda
Yannick Tylle / Getty Images.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed chimpanzees as endangered for the first time in 1996 after studies predicted a 50% reduction in the global population between 1975 and 2050.

The Jane Goodall Foundation estimates there are between 172,000 and 300,000 chimpanzees left in the wild, a far cry from the one million that existed at the turn of the century. One of the four distinct subspecies—the western chimpanzee found mainly in Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, and Sierra Leone—is considered critically endangered.

Threats

Poaching and habitat loss due to illegal logging, development, and mining continue to plague wild chimpanzees in their native habitats across Central and West Africa. These issues lead to other indirect threats, such as diseases due to increased contact with humans.

Threats are exacerbated by the species' slow reproductive rate—if an adult chimp is killed, it takes an average of 13 to 14 years to replace them with a breeding individual.

Poaching

Western chimpanzee female and son in Bossou Forest, Mont Nimba, Guinea
Fiona Rogers / Getty Images.

Bushmeat has always been a valuable source of protein for those who live in the forests of Central and West Africa, but a commercial market has also become an issue in recent years.

Chimpanzees are more commonly hunted using guns or snares, while poachers often target new mothers in order to sell the adult as bushmeat and the babies as pets.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), as many as 22,218 wild great apes were lost to the illegal trade between 2005 and 2011, and at least 64% of them were chimpanzees.

Disease

Because we share so much of our DNA, chimpanzees are susceptible to many of the same diseases as humans. With the constantly expanding human-wildlife interface as the number of people grow in and around their habitat (the population of sub-Saharan Africa alone is projected to double by 2050), chimps will be more likely to fall victim to pathogen transmissions.

Ebola has been observed in chimpanzee populations as far back as 1994. That year, ethologists studying the behavior of wild chimpanzee communities in Taï National Park, Côte d'Ivoire—one of the last areas of primary rainforest in West Africa—identified a new subtype of the virus that had killed at least eight chimps from a single community.

Extractive Industries

Until the 1990s, most of Central Africa was made up of dense, roadless forest blocks that were difficult to access for humans. In the time since then, almost all terra firma forest in the unprotected areas of the central chimpanzee's range has been assigned to logging or mining concessions. As a result, these once-remote forests are now covered by vast networks of logging roads, making chimpanzee habitat more accessible to hunters and traffickers.

In areas that have been converted to agricultural fields or plantations, chimps are sometimes killed by farmers trying to protect their crops.

With a range of over 2.6 million kilometers, chimpanzees have the widest geographic distribution of any great ape. Any precious habitat lost to activities from commercial logging, mining, or land conversion has the potential to do substantial damage to chimpanzee communities.

What We Can Do

The elements threatening them are deeply interconnected with other problems like poverty, lack of economic opportunity, political corruption, and the absence of community awareness. All of these challenges must be addressed to give chimpanzees a fighting chance.

Protected Areas

Establishing and merging national parks throughout the chimpanzee's range and enforcing wildlife laws will be essential to maintaining healthy populations for generations to come.

Although national and international laws protect chimps (they're listed on Appendix I of CITES and as Class A under the African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources), enforcement can often become weakened by factors like conflict, corruption, and poverty. And while all four chimpanzee subspecies occur naturally in national parks, the majority occur outside of protected areas.

Organizations like the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation (WCF) work on the ground throughout Africa in places where chimpanzee conservation is needed most. In Liberia, the WCF supports community watch teams (CWT) in the protected areas of Sapo National Park where illegal miners have invaded. With help from the Forestry Development Authority, CWT patrols resulted in thousands of illegal miners leaving the national park within just 11 months.

Research

Baby chimpanzees at Chimfunshi Chimpanzee Orphanage
Martin Harvey / Getty Images.

In 2020, researchers from Denmark, Spain, Russia, and the UK analyzed about 60,000 genetic markers from captive-born and wild-born chimpanzees. Referencing data from wild-born chimps whose birthplace was already known, they were able to construct a genetic reference map to compare with DNA from chimps who were confiscated from illegal trafficking operations and brought to sanctuaries.

The research helped determine which subspecies of chimp they had recovered and where that individual had come from originally. This information is instrumental for reintroducing recovered chimps back into their pinpointed native habitats and for captive breed programs to preserve unique subspecies of chimpanzees if they go extinct in the wild.

Work has also been done in vaccination research to protect chimpanzees from infectious diseases. Ecologists at the University of Cambridge have developed a method to administer Ebola vaccines to chimpanzees orally rather than through injections, meaning the vaccine could simply be left on a bait for the animal to find.

Snare Removal

Taking a more direct approach, conservationists at the Jane Goodall Institute have employed the help of former poachers to locate and remove illegal snares in the Ugandan forests throughout Kibale National Park, the Kalinzu Forest Reserve, and the Budongo Forest Reserve.

Since the program began, over 7,000 snares have been removed and 18 interventions have been made to release trapped chimps.

The project's collaborative nature helps create new economic incentives for former poachers—who had previously made their living setting traps for chimpanzees—to work toward conservation instead.

Ecotourism

Sustainably managed ecotourism programs, which focus on teaching travelers about conservation while also using raised funds to benefit the environment and local communities, have already shown success with other great apes (most famously, the mountain gorillas of Rwanda) and could potentially do the same for chimpanzees.

Apart from safeguarding natural resources, these types of projects can also benefit the local economy by providing additional opportunities for employment.

Save the Chimpanzee

  • Symbolically adopt a chimpanzee through the World Wildlife Fund (WFF). The WWF works in Central and West Africa to stop illegal chimpanzee poaching in logging areas.
  • Support the Jane Goodall Institute, where a portion of donations goes toward the Tchimpounga Sanctuary, Africa's largest refuge for chimpanzees orphaned from the bushmeat trade.
  • Reduce your consumption of paper products, palm oil, and items that promote forest logging, or opt for Forest Stewardship Council certified products.
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