At the beginning of the 20th century, more than 2 million chimpanzees flourished in the forests of 25 African countries. Today, only 4 nations have significant populations. Population estimates for 1999 show that common chimpanzee numbers have dwindled to between 150,000 to 235,000 individuals. Most of the remaining animals are found in the Central Africa forests of Zaire, Gabon, Congo, and Cameroon. There are many factors that have contributed to the decline of wild chimpanzee populations. The largest contributor to the chimpanzee crisis is the threat made by the overpopulation of Homo sapiens. Large encampments of human population create a stress on the environment by consuming resources. Harvesting the environment for fuel and raw material results in deforestation and loss of habitat. Harvesting the environment for food results in the bushmeat trade.
The Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA) is an alliance of 16 primate sanctuaries from all over Africa. PASA suggests a need for general guidelines for the establishment of authorities, site location, long-term sustainability, management practice, primate management, and health issues. Norm Rosen, a member of the PASA advisory board and a professor of anthropology at California State University Fullerton, coordinated a study on the extinction rate of the wild chimpanzee. The results of this research suggested that certain subspecies of chimpanzee could become extinct within the next two decades. The Pan troglodytes vellerosous is one of four chimpanzee subspecies, and it is estimated that only 8,000 remain in the wild. According to Rosen, the situation is critical; the rising number of orphaned chimpanzees is indicative of the decrease in population. There are a variety of reasons why wild chimpanzee populations are dropping dramatically.
The tropical rain forests of West and Central Africa cover an area of over 2 million sq km. Timber companies enter into untouched areas in search of the valuable trees that are scattered throughout the forest. The building of roads into unlogged areas heavily fragments the forest and opens it up to hunters. Logging companies introduce a large new workforce that increases the demand for meat. Furthermore, logging vehicles are used to transport bushmeat to the market, where the precious delicacy can satiate the demands of the masses. The vehicles facilitate the process, which results in more demand: more mouths to feed and ultimately far fewer chimpanzees in the wild. The logging companies make it easy and profitable for their workers to enter into the commercial trade for bushmeat.
Economics drives the bushmeat crisis. Growing demand for meat in most cities provides new economic opportunities for people whose traditional sources of income have disappeared and where jobs have become scarce. A majority of people who eat bushmeat do so because it is cheap or free and easily accessible. Hunting is vital to families without access to agricultural markets. Hunting is also woven into many societies. Animal parts, such as horns, feathers, or bones, are a crucial part of many cultural and religious ceremonies.
Central Africans typically eat as much as many Europeans and North Americans (30-70 kg/person/ year). Approximately 30 million people live in the forests of Central Africa, and they eat approximately 1.1 million tons of wildlife each year. The estimated annual value of the bushmeat trade in West and Central Africa could exceed 1 billion U.S. dollars. A hunter can make $300 to $1,000 per year from commercial hunting, which, in that economic reality, is a lot of money. As the urban populations create more of a demand, more people will be attracted to the bushmeat trade.
Logging companies can potentially have a large role in curbing the bushmeat trade. Not only are they crucial in determining forest habitat management in the region, but they can also establish policy that would reduce the strain on the environment. The majority of large, relatively intact blocks of forest outside of protected areas currently comprise less than 6% of the landscape in Central Africa. These regions are already being logged or earmarked for logging. It is critical that logging companies modify their policies to minimize the impact on wildlife. It is also important that the protected areas have sufficient funding to ensure the long-term existence of forest fauna. To facilitate this, the government along with the logging companies need to establish long-term wildlife management plans, set aside unlogged refuges for rare or threatened species, halt the transportation of hunters and bush-meat of logging vehicles, deny hunters road access to logged forests, and seek ways to provide local populations with alternative sources of protein.
Economics will play a key role in developing resolutions to the environmental tragedy of bushmeat. Cooperative efforts should be made to increase law enforcement and to tax commercial trade in the bushmeat. Local production of economically affordable bushmeat alternatives is vital, to stop the unsustainable levels of hunting. We need to reduce the amount taken out of the forests and shift the demand to the local alternatives. Unless people have economically viable alternatives, they will continue to demand wildlife as an affordable source of food, which is perceived as an inexhaustible and abundant resource. Local government also needs to promote the use of family planning by providing the resources to curb the growth of population.
Not all chimpanzees are pulled out of the wild for bushmeat; some are used in the black-market pet trade and in biomedical research. The Great Ape Project Census 2001 revealed over 3,100 great apes living in captivity in the United States, ranging from modern zoos and sanctuaries to carnivals and laboratories. The census found great apes living in 37 states, 1,280 in biomedical research laboratories. Up to 90,000 chimpanzees a year were once used by biomedical research in the United States. Labs today rely on their captive breeding policy to provide new individuals, reducing the demand for wild-caught chimpanzees. Chimpanzees are one of the 61 primate species prohibited from commercial trade by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Although they are illegal to sell, chimpanzees are still bought and sold in the underground pet trade.
We as humans have to be responsible in how we treat our environment and our neighbors. We need to set aside forests for our closest living relative and properly manage what forests remain. We need to find viable alternative food sources so that all local fauna does not get consumed as food. We need to come up with realistic alternatives for income generation, such as ecotourism. In the long term, the bushmeat trade is not economically viable. It is limited and nonsustainable, and at the current rate of proliferation, the chimpanzee will not exist in the wild in 10 to 15 years.
- Bushmeat Crisis Task Force. (2000, April). The role of the logging industry (Fact sheet). Silver Spring, MD: Author.
- Great Ape Project Census (2001). www.greatapeproject.org
- Grolimond, G. (2004). Alarming study reveals chimpanzee extinction crisis. Montreal, Canada: Jane Goodall Institute of Canada.
- Gunn, C., Liffick, M., & Mathis, J. (2001). Biological diversity 2001: Chimpanzee.