Great ape populations have continued to shrink across the globe recently

Declining number of apes

Great ape populations have continued to shrink across the globe recently. Jacqueline Sunderland-Groves is a great ape expert in UBC’s faculty of forestry, and she recently explained why protecting gorillas, chimpanzee’s and other great apes is so important, and also what can be done to protect the species.

New data shows that if the pressures on their habitat remain unchecked, Africa’s great apes could lose between 85 per cent and 94 per cent of their range by the year 2050. As their range decreases, so does their chances for survival.

“Range is the geographic area naturally occupied by a species. Across their current range, African great ape populations are distributed within 21 countries. Unfortunately, the majority of their range occurs outside of recognized protected areas and as land-use, climate and human population density increase, great apes will lose huge areas of their habitat," said Sunderland-Groves.

According to Sunderland-Groves, climate change has a dangerous effect on the great apes population. “For example, climate change will result in some lowland habitats becoming warmer and drier. Lowland vegetation will extend upwards to nearby mountains. All animals reliant on those habitats will have to shift their range or face local extinction.”

The study is significant because it is the first to combine climate, land use and human-population changes.

She says the study revealed some eye-opening scenarios. “In the best-case scenario, we can expect a range decline of 85 per cent, 50 per cent of which is outside of protected areas. And worst-case we would see a range decline of 94 per cent, of which 61 per cent is outside of protected areas. Potentially, and if great ape populations do shift their range in response to changing landscapes, we can expect some significant range gains, but there is no guarantee that they will.”

She also says that there is still time for these predictions to change, as some climate change related range loss can be avoided by taking the proper management measures, together with boosting the protected area network within great ape range states based on suitable habitats for them.

Sutherland-Groves says that a planet without apes is something that would be devastating for humans, and says an issue this significant deserves a world-wide response.

“Resources we use on a daily basis are extracted from their natural habitat through logging, mining and the establishment of large-scale agricultural plantations, so this is really a global issue which requires a global response. Great apes are charismatic “umbrella species” — protecting them protects a wide range of other wild fauna and flora. Healthy forests equate to healthy people and societies and that must be sufficient justification for ensuring we do not end up living on a planet without apes.”

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