Broken Bloodlines: the importance of chimpanzee conservation

Despite being our closest living relative, chimpanzees have long been treated as nothing but faceless human commodities.

Bought and sold in black markets, probed and prodded in laboratories, left homeless and in despair, the number of chimpanzees lost from the wild in the last three decades has fallen from one million to as low as 170,000. This decline shows no sign of stopping any time soon.

The threats they face are, shamefully, shared by wildlife worldwide: habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, and disease. These fearsome indications of extinction are not out of our control, they are human-induced and very much our problem to fix. Groups like the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre and the Jane Goodall Institute are working tirelessly to undo our wrongs but rely on continued public support to be effective in protecting chimpanzees in the wild and from wildlife trafficking.

So, why should we care about chimpanzee conservation?

Despite the obvious moral and ethical concerns surrounding anthropogenic extinctions, chimpanzees are an essential part of their ecosystems, strongly influencing forest regeneration and biodiversity, and are key to our understanding of human evolution. If we lose the chimpanzee, we risk losing not only the precious ecological processes of which they effortlessly guide, but also an ancient part of our own species’ history.

Chimps are our closest living relative.

Chimpanzee and human lineages diverged from a common ancestor around seven million years ago and considering primate evolution began over sixty million years beforehand, our separation is relatively recent – we are more closely related to chimpanzees and bonobos than they are to gorillas or orangutans. Modern humans (Homo sapiens) are already in the unique and lonely position of being the only species left to represent our genus (Homo) and with the current decreasing trend in wild chimpanzee populations, we are on course to lose the closest wild family we have left, besides bonobos.

From a human perspective, chimpanzees show a high degree of intelligence, and comparisons are difficult to ignore. Their advanced social intelligence enables chimpanzees to engage in deception, social learning, and trading. Chimpanzees also show many characteristically human traits; they smile and laugh to communicate positive emotions, possess meta-cognition which allows them to reflect on their own thoughts and mental processes, have a sense of morality, enact war, and create meaningful and lasting friendships. Meta-cognition is perhaps the most powerful similarity shared between humans and chimpanzees, and Frans de Waal – one of the world’s leading primatologists – argues that it allows chimpanzees to exhibit the highest level of empathy, empathic perspective-taking. This level of empathy is used, for example, by mother chimpanzees to assess specific reasons for their offspring’s distress or their goals.

Tool use in chimpanzees

Tool use is another example of the advanced cognitive abilities of chimpanzees. In the wild, these highly intelligent animals have been observed using twigs, leaves, clubs, and stones to scoop up ants, inspect beehives and fish for honey, crack nuts, and pick marrow out of bone. The methods of tool preparation and use varies between groups, indicating some influence of cultural heritage within chimpanzee populations.

Research on chimpanzees has been of great importance to human evolutionary studies. Much of our knowledge of the Early Pliocene (~ 5 million years ago) hominids stems from what we know about chimpanzee behaviour, since fossils of these ancient human ancestors are extremely rare. We have strong theories on their hunting ecology based on chimpanzee hunting strategies; Pliocene hominids were territorial and lived in groups, were primarily frugivorous (fruit-eaters) and hunted socially for meat when the opportunity arose.

Understanding chimpanzee ecology does not only shed light on our mysterious origins, but also on the subtle processes that maintain ecosystems and biodiversity. Herein lies the true importance of chimpanzee conservation.

Constant gardeners.

As we hastily try to reverse the destruction of our planet’s forests, especially in highly productive tropical regions such as West and Central Africa, we must look deeper into the components which allow tropical forests to thrive.

Frugivores (fruit eaters) play vital roles in tropical forest diversity and regeneration, as well as the establishment of new habitat, via seed dispersal. Chimpanzees are a key dispersal species, ingesting seeds and depositing them into new areas, thereby contributing to the spatial and genetic structure of plant communities. The quantity of seeds able to be carried in a chimpanzee gut passage is also important for forest ecosystems, as is the diversity of seeds carried. In Rwanda, chimpanzees have been found to disperse nearly 600 seeds per kilometre each day, and these seeds comprise 37 different fruiting species; that’s a pretty efficient tree planting service, and completely free!

This dispersal mechanism (zoochory) is often relied heavily upon by tree species with large seeds which cannot be dispersed by wind. Particularly important for gene flow in fragmented landscapes, the long gut retention times and large home ranges of chimpanzees (up to 300 km2) ensure that seeds are dispersed over long distances. However, the reliance of some tree species on chimpanzees as seed dispersers is worrying in the face of their precarious status as an ‘Endangered’ species.

In Gabon, chimpanzees are the main dispersers of Dacryodes normandii, an endemic evergreen tree confined to the region. There are also many tree species with which co-evolutionary interactions with chimpanzees have resulted in gut passage determining germination success. Thus, loss of chimpanzees as seed dispersers for these species could reduce the distribution of and genetic variation in tree species, impacting ecosystems on a larger scale. Each tree species maintains a plethora of other organisms – beetles, birds, reptiles, fungi, bacteria – and so should these trees dwindle in numbers and range due to loss of dispersal mechanism, others who rely on their refuge will soon follow suit.

No single species or organism should be underestimated in the importance of its particular ecological niche – to do so would be dangerously naïve. The consequences of losing chimpanzees from West and Central Africa may well contribute to reductions in carbon storage in these tropical regions and ultimately influence the global climate.

Chimpanzees – stolen apes.

Trade in chimpanzees, despite being banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), is thriving. An estimated 15,000 chimpanzees fell victim to illegal trade between 2005-2011, whilst only 27 arrests were made in that same time period in connection with trade in great apes (including gorillas, orangutans, and bonobos, but excluding us) – one in four were not prosecuted.

A considerable number of chimpanzees are poached at an extremely young age – an age when they should be clinging to their mother – and sold into a range of markets via transnational criminal networks. The end consumers include the tourist entertainment industry, disreputable zoos, and those who use exotic pets as some gauche status symbol. Considering the cognitive abilities of chimpanzees previously discussed, one can only imagine the long-term effects that live trade can have on their behaviour and wellbeing – cognitive deficits, attachment disorders, and chronic anxiety are among myriad psychological issues that result.

Ten chimpanzees are killed for each one stolen; these innocents, murdered defending their own kin, are then sold to bushmeat markets. The rapid rate of urban development, as well as proliferation of logging and mining camps, has driven the demand for bushmeat markets. This expansion of human range has led to the massive decline in natural chimpanzee range, promoting contact and conflict between chimp and man. It has been projected that by the end of the next decade only ten percent of current chimpanzee range will remain. This will surely see chimpanzees functionally extinct in the wild and cannot be accepted as just another lost cause.

The illegal wildlife trade now ranks amongst the most significant illegal activities in the world, aided by deforestation and the apathetic lack of CITES and national law enforcement. Compliance with wildlife policy must be encouraged through strict regulation and sure-fire prosecution, and education on the ecological importance of chimpanzees is necessary to both deter poaching, reduce demand, and encourage support for conservation efforts.

Loss of chimpanzees from the wild will have sad consequences for the biodiversity of tropical regions, given their necessary role in seed dispersal. As we share a relatively recent common ancestor with chimpanzees, we should take offence at the violation of our fellow great apes. Those who actively choose to steal wild chimpanzees from their home should inspire public indignation and criminal networks responsible should be investigated and punished without reprieve.

Written by: Linus Hiscox, studying MSc Global Biodiversity Health and Conservation at the University of Bristol and DSWF Programmes and Policy Intern.