What is a Chimpanzee?
The chimpanzee is a great ape species that is native to sub-Saharan Africa, where it prefers forests and jungles. This species is divided into two subspecies: the bonobo and the common chimpanzee. The bonobo inhabits areas south of the Congo river and the common chimpanzee can be found to the north of the Congo river. These two chimpanzee species can be differentiated by their size and social structure; the common chimpanzee is larger and has a patriarchal society, while the bonobo is smaller and has a matriarchal society. Both have the largest brains of all primates, are the most intelligent, use tools, and are the closest relatives to humans. Chimpanzees are social animals that live in communities of between 15 and 80 individuals. This article takes a closer look at the conservation status, threats, and global population of the chimpanzee.
Chimpanzees could once be found across the central area of Africa, within the equatorial region. At the beginning of the 20th century, this area extended from the western regions of Tanzania and Uganda to the southern region of Senegal and chimpanzees inhabited the heavily forested areas. The chimpanzee population was believed to be approximately 1 million. Today, however, its range and population size have significantly declined. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed this species as endangered. The common chimpanzee has a wild population size of between 150,000 and 250,000 and the bonobo is estimated to have a wild population of between 29,500 and 50,000. Its status as an endangered species has been caused by a number of factors which are discussed below.
The primary threats facing chimpanzees today include: poaching, illegal pet trade, habitat loss, and sickness.
Poaching is a serious problem for chimpanzee conservation. These animals are valued as a food source for humans. Chimpanzee meat makes up between 1 and 3% of bushmeat in Ivory Coast markets. In other areas, this species is killed for use as folk medicine. Additionally, these animals are highly sought to be sold and traded in the illegal pet market. Many times, the mother is killed and sold in the urban markets as bushmeat and her baby is then sold off as a pet.
Chimpanzee habitat loss is also a significant contributor to the population decline as infrastructure expansion, deforestation, and increasing urbanization are infringing upon historical chimpanzee territories. Infrastructure expansion, in particular, has also provided poachers with easier access to chimpanzee habitats. As these habitats become more fragmented, chimpanzee populations are forced to live in greater isolation, which results in a less diverse gene pool. Even those chimpanzees which live in protected areas, like national parks and reserves, are subject to illegal mining, logging, and agricultural activities.
This species is also threatened by disease. Because of the similarities between chimpanzees and humans, these animals are able to contract human diseases. Both Ebola and HIV are able to infect chimpanzees. As urban areas come into closer contact with chimpanzee habitats, the likelihood of contracting these diseases increases.
Chimpanzees in the Wild
As previously mentioned, the wild chimpanzee population is estimated at between 150,000 and 200,000. This species can still be found within its original range, however, its habitats are smaller and more fragmented than previously. The largest population, around 115,000, is found in the central region of Africa, which includes: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, and Gabon. Within these countries, chimpanzees can only be found in large tracts of virgin forests. Within this central area, smaller populations can also be found in: southeast Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, the Central African Republic, and Angola.
Other chimpanzees can also be found in the western and eastern regions of Africa. In the west, population estimates range between 21,000 and 55,000. The chimpanzees here are found in extremely scattered and very small sections of remaining forests. Of the 13 western countries where chimpanzees can be found, Cote d’Ivoire has the largest population, however, this once large number has actually decreased by 90% over the last two decades. This is followed by larger chimpanzee populations in Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, and Nigeria. Much smaller populations inhabit Ghana, Senegal, and Mali. Today, chimpanzees are listed as extinct in Burkina Faso, Benin, and Gambia. Statistics suggest that this species may also be extinct in Togo.
In the east, chimpanzees inhabit the western areas of Tanzania and Uganda, Rwanda, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Much smaller concentrations of this species can be found in southeastern Sudan and Burundi.
Of particular concern is the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, which has the smallest wild population at only around 6,500. These individuals inhabit the area north of the Sanaga river and approximately 1,500 of them, the only ones considered protected, can be found in the Gashaka-Gumti National Park.
Chimpanzees in Captivity
Around the world, additional chimpanzee populations are being kept in captivity. Many of these individuals are living in zoos and research centers, although some are used as part of circus acts or kept as pets.
Current statistics indicate that 119 bonobos are living in zoos throughout Europe. The majority of these can be found in Germany, where 65 bonobos are distributed among 6 zoos. In the US, for example, around 2,000 chimpanzees are currently living in captivity. Of these, around 300 are in zoos and around 1,700 have been bred for use as medical research subjects. The chimpanzees found in medical research laboratories are the descendants of wild chimpanzees that were trapped prior to 1973, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was enacted.
CITES signatory countries are prevented from capturing, trading, or otherwise killing plant and animal species on the list. This means that in non-signatory countries, chimpanzees are still being caught and used in circuses. These circus chimpanzees are caught as babies so they can be trained from a young age and the poachers also kill the adults in the group to gain easier access to the targeted babies. The number of chimpanzees held as circus acts or as household pets in non-CITES countries is unknown.