Chimpanzees are closest animal cousins to humans, sharing about 98 percent of their genetic code. In the wild, these highly social animals can live to be up to 50 years old, but unfortunately their lives are being cut short as they have become an endangered species and are threatened with becoming extinct.
As members of the great ape family, wild chimpanzees numbered more than one million 50 years ago. Now, that number has decreased to between 172,700 and 299,700. Chimpanzees have disappeared from four countries and numbers are declining in the other 22 countries they call home.
Disease has contributed largely to the dwindling numbers of chimpanzees. In 1994 and 2003, the Ebola virus wiped out 98 percent of the chimpanzees and gorillas in northern areas of Gabon and the Republic of Congo. Chimpanzees are also susceptible to contracting diseases from humans because they share the majority of their genetics. When humans begin interacting with chimpanzees through hunting and poaching, eco-tourism and other habitat invasion, diseases that humans carry can spread to the chimpanzee population in the area and vice-versa.
Poaching is also a large contributor to the endangerment of chimpanzees. Although bushmeat has always been a food source in Central and West African countries, the bushmeat trade, which is illegal, has become a commercial industry for poachers. Adult chimpanzees and, other great apes, are killed and their meat is sold to wealthy urban residents in Africa, Europe and even the United States. Infant chimpanzees are then taken from their slaughtered mothers and sold on the black market as pets or to zoos in foreign countries. The bushmeat trade is estimated at $1 billion annually.
In March 2013 the United Nations reported that 3,000 great apes disappear from the forests of Africa and Southeast Asia each year due to poaching. The report, titled Stolen Apes: The Illicit Trade in Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Bonobos and Orangutans, examines how the illegal trade has shifted from a casualty of habitat destruction to an institution of organized crime. The report also makes recommendations to combat the trade that is causing a decline in chimpanzee and great ape populations.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) protects chimpanzees from being transported internationally, but the organization is unable to enforce the laws on black market trafficking of great apes and the bushmeat trade.
Habitat destruction is another reason wild chimpanzees are becoming scarce. Deforestation for timber, mining and oil companies is causing their natural habitat in African jungles and rainforests to shrink and leaves the areas barren of the trees they used to live in. Forest encroachment where their habitat is cleared away in favor of new housing and development for the growing African population causes chimpanzee communities to become fragmented, interfering with their ability to form strong units and reproduce.
In 1990 wild chimpanzees gained recognition as an endangered species, which provided them legal protection from capture and harassment. However, not all chimps were not afforded all of the same protection. Captive chimpanzees were not added to the endangered species list, which left them victim to invasive studies and biomedical testing in research facilities, universities and private facilities.
Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed putting captive chimpanzees on the endangered species list. Doing so would protect the 1,884 chimpanzees in the United States, many of which are currently being used for medical research. The protection would make it illegal to perform invasive research or any testing that would “harm or harass” captive chimps. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not yet changed their status.
Wildlife organizations, government entities, and even research facilities are working on efforts to save chimpanzees from complete eradication. How they have become an endangered species is evident, but until all causes of chimpanzee endangerment are managed, chimpanzee numbers will continue to decline. Chimpanzees could go the way of the Dodo if real changes are not made.
By Brandi M. Fleeks