Last chance to save man's closest relative

Posted: 18 February 2004

Wild chimpanzees are only found in tropical Africa, where their populations have declined by more than 66 per cent in the last 30 years, from 600,000 to fewer than 200,000 individuals. A new action plan aimed to reverse this dramatic decline has been drawn up by leading conservationists.

The action plan, produced by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and collaborating partners, details a strategy for protecting 80 per cent of the surviving chimpanzees in West Africa at a cost of US$9 million.

It offers the most up-to-date information on the status and threats to chimpanzees and outlines conservation goals, including increasing the number and size of protected areas, community involvement in conservation efforts, increasing border controls to stem the bushmeat trade, more training for park rangers and forestry agents as well as for judges who apply wildlife protection laws, and stringent penalties for breaching wildlife laws.

The Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) is man's closest relative. Photo IUCN
The Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) is man's closest relative. Photo IUCN
The Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) is man's closest relative. Their numbers have plummeted due to habitat destruction, trapping, disease (chimpanzees are susceptible to many human infectious diseases) and, most recently, the bushmeat trade and ebola outbreak. The species faces imminent extinction unless urgent action is taken to reverse this trend.© IUCN

Genetic link

More than any other species, chimpanzees provide an important link to our evolutionary history and resemble humans genetically, physically and behaviourally: the long term bonds between family members; the long period of dependency on the mother; their gestures such as embracing, kissing, patting one another on the back, swaggering, and shaking their fists; their intellectual abilities, which include making and using primitive tools; and the expression of emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, fear, or despair.

Yet, their numbers have plummeted and the species faces imminent extinction.

At the beginning of the 20th century, chimpanzee numbers were between one and two million spread throughout 25 African countries. Even in 1960 when Dr Jane Goodall began her famous research in Tanzania, numbers were estimated to be at least one million. Today only some 150,000 are thought to remain.

Scientists say that their dramatic reduction is due to habitat destruction as human populations grow and move into new areas, trapping, disease (chimpanzees are susceptible to many human infectious diseases) and, most recently, the bushmeat trade and ebola outbreak. Chimpanzees, like the other great apes, are slow breeders which makes it difficult for their populations to bounce back.

"It will indeed be tragic if we do not prevent their extinction," says Dr Goodall.

Critical numbers

All four subspecies of chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) are listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The report, West African Chimpanzees: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan focuses on the western chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes verus) which has an estimated population of 38,000. Together with the Nigeria chimpanzee it is considered at greatest risk of extinction. The subspecies has already disappeared from two countries and could soon disappear from a further five where national populations are thought to be smaller than 1,000 individuals.

The plan resulted from a recent workshop in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, where an international group of 72 biologists, protected areas managers, government officials, and other experts met to discuss actions for protecting chimpanzees in West Africa. The final report has been produced jointly by the Primate Specialist Group of IUCN's Species Survival Commission and the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science at Conservation International. It will also help support the UNEP-UNESCO Great Apes Survival Project.

To obtain a copy of West African Chimpanzees: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan, email: . The title is also available electronically at Conservation International's Center for Applied Biodiversity Science.