We often think of poaching, disease and ‘pest’ control to be the principle causes of deaths of Great Apes in the wild. But a major new study suggests otherwise.
Agriculture, often subsistence farming, is monopolizing land and marginalizing apes, pushing them to the limits of extinction in their own ‘strongholds’.
Apes are now outnumbered 100 to 1 in Great Ape ranges in Africa and South-East Asia, with that set to grow to 200 to 1 by 2050, according to the study led by Liverpool John Moores University.
“There have always been clashes between humans and their ape relatives but the relentless expansion of agriculture and people living off the land in traditional ape territories has become critical for their survival,” explained Professor Serge Wich.
The study 'Apes and Agriculture' published in Frontiers in Conservation Science today (9 November, 2023) estimates that between 750,000 and 1,250,000 apes remain, of which some 70% are outside protected areas.
“That’s all chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans – getting on for a million of them now trying to survive in this ultra-competitive environment with us.”
Conservationists have long warned about habitats being destroyed for palm oil production but the team’s review of SPAM data correlated with IUCN species ranges, shows the threat of rice, maize, cassava and cacao are equally if not much bigger threats than oil palm.
In all, the ten most common crops occupy 13.7% of land in apes ranges in Africa (Nigerian and Cameroon) and 15.6% of territory in Borneo and Sumatra.
“The crops that are the main threats to great apes have somewhat flown under the radar,” states Dr Erik Meijaard, lead conservationist with Borneo Futures and co-author.
“We expect further habitat loss, particularly in Africa, often driven by subsistence farmers with small fields (typically less than 0.64 hectares).”
Great ape ranges are also those with some of the highest levels of malnourishment, notably in West Africa.
But it is not too late to protect the apes, they argue, with better land use planning.
“There are many examples where locally-coordinated efforts have fostered synergies between conservation efforts and food production,” suggests Professor Wich.
“Effective governance and conservation financing play pivotal roles in achieving optimal outcomes for both conservation and food security.”
The researchers emphasize the need for enforcing forest conservation laws, engaging in trade policy discussions, and integrating policies on trade, food security, enhanced agricultural techniques, to prevent further decline in great ape populations.