Save apes to save the forest

7 April 2023


Apes have a key role maintaining forests but, can come into conflict with people. Born Free promotes co-existence so both can thrive, as our Conservation team reports in a fascinating long read.

Human-wildlife conflict (HWC) is a serious barrier to the conservation of many species worldwide, and great apes are unfortunately no different. Habitat degradation and fragmentation are forcing great apes to survive in increasingly human-dominated landscapes which can often boil over into human-ape conflict, as both compete for the same resources.  

This is a serious concern as great apes play a vital role in the ecosystems in which they live – earning them the title: ‘the gardeners of the forest’. Due to the capacity of forests to sequester billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, it is imperative we preserve the natural functioning forests to have any chance of reversing the catastrophic trends in atmospheric carbon and the climate crisis.

Therefore, it is critical human-ape conflict is addressed, to ensure the health of populations of great apes and by extension the health of forest ecosystems. Born Free works in several countries to ensure both great apes and people can co-exist peacefully alongside each other.

The Great apes include chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans and ourselves! Great apes can be described as ecosystem engineers, which are species whose behaviour has a significant influence on their environment. Removing such a species would lead to significant and catastrophic changes to their habitat, having knock-on-effects on countless other species, including people, and the climate.

For example, gorillas play a critical role in seed dispersal, as Born Free’s Head of Conservation, Dr. Nikki Tagg explains: “Consider a gorilla, eating kilos of fruit, swallowing them whole, seeds and all, and then depositing those seeds in piles of compost (dung) at their sleeping sites in open canopy areas where the germinating seedlings will have a great chance of survival. This constitutes a unique and critical function of seed dispersal.” Through their behaviour, gorillas and other great apes maintain forest habitats, which benefits themselves and many other forest species, as well as promoting plant growth which increases the carbon sequestration potential of the ecosystem.

However, as with many species globally, humans are encroaching on great ape habitat, restricting their ranges into smaller and smaller parcels of land. Inevitably, great apes are forced into human-dominated areas, potentially leading to conflict with people. Matt McLennan, director of the Bulindi Chimpanzee and Community Project (BCCP), in Uganda, explains the nature of this conflict: “when people cut down forests for farming the chimps switch to feeding on nutritious human crops. Crop-feeding by chimpanzees jeopardizes local livelihoods and leads to intolerance and resistance to conservation programs. Worse still, frequent competitive interactions between chimpanzees and local people can result in injuries and – in rare instances – deaths of both people and apes.”

BCCP, supported by Born Free, is located in an unprotected area known as the Budongo-Bugoma Corridor, an approximately 460 square mile (1,200km2) area heavily settled by people, between the two forest reserves, ‘Budongo’ and ‘Bugoma’. An estimated 300 chimpanzees reside in this area, utilising the fragmented riverine forest amongst the expanding agricultural and settlement areas. In this potentially high-conflict environment, the work of BCCP to carry out ‘sensitization’ training and community outreach activities is essential to promote positive attitudes and behaviours towards chimpanzees, enabling coexistence rather than conflict.

Furthermore, BCCP provides a financial contribution to villagers that facilitates their children to attend school, and in return the villagers conserve patches of privately owned land. This simultaneously safeguards the forest habitat for chimpanzees, and provides a distinct social benefit to people, improving the attitudes of locals to great ape conservation and enabling coexistence in Uganda.

“Effective conflict mitigation is at the core of our project, and many of our programs are designed to enhance the livelihoods and raise living standards of the local people who bear the costs of coexisting with these remarkable – albeit at times troublesome – great apes. This approach helps increase people’s capacity to accommodate the chimps and engage in conservation activities. However, it is important to acknowledge there is no quick fix to the complex challenges of conserving large animals like chimpanzees living in such close proximity to a mostly poor and growing human population.

“Local residents and other stakeholders in our project area have diverse priorities and interests, which create unanticipated challenges. Patience, understanding, and long-term livelihood support and economic opportunities for local people, alongside careful management of the chimpanzees and conservation of their remaining habitat, will be required for decades to come. The chimpanzees in our project area offer a glimpse of what the future holds for many great apes elsewhere. As such, our project has additional value as a template for conflict mitigation and coexistence between apes and people in a changing world” – Matt McLennan, BCCP Director

Coexistence in areas where great apes are not hunted for their meat, such as in Bulindi, is possible when forest habitat is conserved and resources can be shared between people and great apes. However, in areas where great apes are hunted for bushmeat the case is different. In these areas, such as the Dja Biosphere Reserve in Cameroon, a crucial first step towards coexistence is to reduce the hunting pressure on great apes. Born Free’s new programme, the Guardians of Dja, aims to reduce the pressures on forest habitats and great ape populations exerted by local villagers in the peripheral areas around the Dja Biosphere Reserve, contributing to the protection and long-term survival of chimpanzees and gorillas.

The programme educates local communities on sustainable agroforestry practices, including cocoa and pepper plantations and composting to maintain soil fertility. This reduces people’s reliance on the extremely damaging slash-and-burn method of farming and gives them a reliable and sustainable trade so that they do not need to sell bushmeat for income.

Guardians of Dja goes one step further and promotes the active restoration of degraded forest areas – abandoned plantations that are no longer fertile because of damaging farming methods – leading to net positive gains in forest habitat. In a year since the programme’s establishment, 50 community members have already expressed a willingness to participate in the forest restoration project, and the first seedlings are expected to be distributed this spring!

Donald Mbohli, the Programme Lead for the Guardians of Dja, said: “The overall goal of the project is to increase the abundance of chimpanzees and gorillas in the Dja Biosphere Reserve by increasing local awareness and acceptance of these animals for conservation. Our program will be expanded into more neighbouring villages so that more rural living people can reduce their pressure on wildlife and the forest, giving the great apes of the Dja a greater chance of being secured for the long-term”.

The Dja Biosphere Reserve is located in the Congo basin, the second largest tract of forest in the world after the Amazon – together they are known as the lungs of the planet. The Congo basin has huge carbon sequestration capacity, with 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide being sequestered every year, providing a global ecosystem service. The health of these forests and their capacity to sequester carbon and combat the climate crisis relies on the health of great ape populations. Great apes play a key role in the natural cycles of forest ecosystems; removing them could be catastrophic.

We must find ways to enable people to live alongside great apes, while increasing the sustainability of their livelihoods. Accepting and understanding the need for conservation of great apes and adapting their livelihoods in ways that do not damage the ecosystem, will result in true coexistence and ensure the preservation of healthy functioning forests globally.

Human-wildlife conflict is a serious issue, not just for apes, but for numerous species globally, and is a serious barrier to conservation. We must find novel, effective strategies to mitigate against conflicts, allowing coexistence with wildlife. Your donation will go a long way to making this a reality.