Updated: Oct 2
Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) are amongst our closest relatives, sharing roughly 98% of our genetic code. Unfortunately, our relatives are dying at a rapid pace, with estimates suggesting that the number of chimpanzees left in the wild is between 170,000 - 300,000 and those counts are dropping.
Concerning the most prominent threats to the species, the majority can be traced back to a singular infamous species, Homo sapiens. The threats imposed by humans on chimpanzees are manifold; Poaching, loss of habitat, and (human-spread) diseases are currently the most severe.
Unfortunately, combating these threats is not as straightforward as it seems. The areas in which humans and wildlife, namely great Apes, live in close proximity, are often areas plagued by a lack of access to education and lower economic margins. This means that local populations become desperate and must search for other ways in which to provide for their families and communities in this ever-changing world.
Luckily, as it turns out, there seems to be another promising action that can help drive the fight to help chimpanzees: RESEARCH!
Various past studies suggest that the presence of researchers and research camps in wild areas can have a positive impact on wildlife stock. Pusey et al. (2007) for example present at least four distinct benefits Research has provided at Gombe National Park, Tanzania.
It was due to Jane Goodall’s groundbreaking research that showed us the urgent need to protect chimpanzees from extinction, and attention was drawn to the field site. This eventually resulted in Gombe being declared as a national park, with all of the environmental benefits for the ecosystem and its inhabitants.
Her findings also drew worldwide public attention to Gombe and Tanzania. Attention from tourists and donors who provide financial support for the region, the parks, and chimpanzee conservation in general.
The on-site research delivered crucial information on social structures and habitat use which is essential for effective chimpanzee conservation at Gombe and elsewhere.
Their research allowed a detailed tracking of the local chimpanzee population over time and helped to identify the chimpanzees' greatest threats.
Furthermore, another study showed that research presence seems to have a strong positive effect on the suppression of poaching in the area surrounding a research station (Köndgen et al. 2008).
As you can see, the effects of research tackle 2 out of the 3 main threats for chimpanzees, namely poaching and habitat loss. Unfortunately, on-site research, as well as ape tourism, increase the third major threat, the transmission of human diseases, since both inevitably bring humans and chimpanzees closer to each other (Köndgen et al 2008) - often with fatal consequences for chimpanzee communities.
We need to question whether the risks of research (and ape tourism) may outweigh the benefits. It was due to research that this threat was discovered and it is due to research that we may now find new ways to tackle these threats. For example, Köndgen et al. (2008) suggest controlling the human-ape interactions in ways that significantly decrease the risk of disease transmissions, such as the obligation for all humans to keep a safe distance when observing wild chimpanzees and always wear face coverings (surgical masks) when in proximity to the chimpanzees (something we are now more used to, thanks to 2020!)
Research provides knowledge and is arguably one of the most effective tools to help humans find solutions to problems. Knowledge enables education and education in turn can also leverage chimpanzee protection. This is why research means protection!
Köndgen, S., Kühl, H., N'Goran, P. K., Walsh, P. D., Schenk, S., Ernst, N., ... & Leendertz, F. H. (2008). Pandemic human viruses cause decline of endangered great apes. Current Biology, 18(4), 260-264.
Pusey, A. E., Pintea, L., Wilson, M. L., Kamenya, S., & Goodall, J. (2007). The contribution of long‐term research at Gombe National Park to chimpanzee conservation. Conservation Biology, 21(3), 623-634.
The IUCN Redlist, https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/15933/129038584