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Protecting Great Apes and Their Habitats

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Susan Swanepoel

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Susan Swanepoel

Author: Susan Swanepoel - 16 October 2023

Last Update: 30 January 2024

While humans are part of the Great Ape family, this article takes a closer look at the non-human species, the threats they face, and what is being done to protect and conserve these remarkable creatures. Chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans all exhibit complex social behaviors and high cognitive abilities, and are our closest animal relatives. Join us as we delve into their unique traits, learn more about their habitats, and explore the challenges to their continued survival.

Meet the Great Apes

Chimpanzees: Chimpanzees are the closest living relative of humans, sharing about 95% of our DNA. They’re highly intelligent, with complex social structures and distinct cultures.

Chipanzee in Kigale Forest, East Africa

Chimpanzees can make and use tools like stick tools for the extraction of ants, termites, and honey, stone and wood tools to crack open nuts, fishing branches to fish for algae, and sponges made from leaves. Here are some more interesting facts about chimps:

  • They’re highly social, living in communities of up to 150 individuals.
  • Social hierarchies are present for both males and females.
  • Chimps have a wide range of complex expressions, postures, and vocalizations for communication.
  • Tactile communication, such as social grooming, occurs to reconcile conflicts, ease stress, and grow and maintain bonds between individuals.
  • Female chimps typically give birth to one infant.
  • Young chimps will become independent at about six to nine years old.
  • Chimps inhabit rainforests, grasslands, and savannahs.
  • Males will assert their dominance through displays of aggression.
  • Chimps are omnivorous, feeding on a mixture of vegetation, bird’s eggs, insects, and small mammals.
  • At night, chimps usually sleep in the trees in nests they build out of branches and leaves.
  • Chimps appear to use certain plants medicinally to cure diseases and expel intestinal parasites.
  • Chimps have a lifespan of about 45 years in the wild and 58 years in captivity.

There are four subspecies of chimpanzee – the western chimpanzee found in West Africa, the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, found exclusively in Nigeria and Cameroon, the central chimpanzee, found in Cameroon and Congo Basin, and the eastern chimpanzee, found in Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Bonobos: Once thought to be a subspecies of chimpanzee, the bonobo monkey is still sometimes referred to as the Pygmy chimp, but differs in many ways from its great ape relative.

The bonobo chimpanzees hugging in the wilderness in Democratic Republic of the Congo

Sharing around 98.5% of the same DNA as humans, bonobos are the only great ape society led by females, with a sophisticated social structure that encourages cooperation and peace. Bonobos share a curious trait with humans – spindle neurons in the brain – which appear to be responsible for the experience of empathy. Here are some more interesting facts about bonobos:

  • Bonobos can leap up to 27.5 inches in the air, higher than humans, which can jump up to 16-24 inches.
  • Males derive their status in the group from the status of their mothers.
  • Male bonobos will form a lifetime bond with their mothers and stay with her troop for life.
  • Female bonobos will band together to control males which become aggressive or unruly.
  • Bonobos have been observed using a plant they don’t usually eat to cure parasites.
  • A matriarchal group can consist of up to 100 members.
  • Bonobos are omnivorous, with a diet consisting of fruit, vegetation, insects, flying squirrels, bats, and even small antelope.
  • When a female reaches sexual maturity, she will join another group, ensuring genetic diversity.
  • Bonobos engage in sexual behavior for a variety of reasons, including to form bonds, to neutralize tense situations, to express excitement, to greet one another, to encourage sharing and compassion, and obviously to produce young.
  • Male bonobos do not take part in the rearing process.
  • Bonobos spend almost all of their time up in trees, foraging for fruit or sleeping in nests they construct in the branches.
  • Bonobos play an important role in seed dispersal of the fruits they consume.

Bonobos are found exclusively in a 500,000 square kilometer (190,000 square mile) area of the Congo Basin in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central Africa, especially in Salonga National Park.

Gorillas: There are two main types of gorilla in the wild, the eastern gorilla and western gorilla. These species are further divided into four subspecies: eastern gorillas include the mountain and eastern lowland subspecies, while western gorillas are split into the Cross River and western lowland subspecies.

The key difference between them is size, with eastern gorillas typically larger than western gorillas.

  • Cross River Gorilla: Only 200-300 of these gorillas still survive in the wild, ensuring their status as critically endangered. Cross River gorillas live in the forests and rainforests of Nigeria and Cameroon.
  • Mountain Gorilla: The mountain gorilla lives in forests at high altitudes and has thick fur which helps it keep warm in colder temperatures. They are found in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Virunga Mountains in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
  • Western Lowland Gorilla: The most numerous of all gorillas, this subspecies is smaller than the others, with a wider skull, smaller ears and a brown-gray coat. Western Lowland gorillas live in isolated swamps and the Republic of Congo.
  • Eastern Lowland Gorilla: This is the largest subspecies of gorilla. It lives in the tropical rainforests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Like the other great apes, the Eastern Lowland gorilla is critically endangered.
A Familiy of Eastern Lowland Gorillas (gorilla beringei graueri) relaxing in the forest. The group is lingering aroud the family leader (“Silverback”).

Gorillas are fascinating animals and are the most human-like primates after chimps and bonobos, sharing around 97% of our DNA. Here are some more interesting facts about these remarkable creatures:

  • Although technically omnivores, gorillas are primarily herbivores, consuming up to 40 pounds of vegetation per day.
  • A gorilla’s front legs are longer than its back legs.
  • 80% of gorillas live outside protected areas.
  • Because they’re so genetically similar to humans, gorillas are susceptible to human diseases.
  • Mature males grow a patch of silver hair on their backs, which is why they’re referred to as ‘silverbacks’.
  • An average silverback gorilla can weigh up to 180 kg and measure 170 cm tall on all fours.
  • Around 85% of a gorilla’s diet is made up of leaves, shoots, and stems, but they can also eat larvae, snails, ants, roots, bark, and rotting wood, which is a good source of sodium.
  • At night, mountain gorillas will sleep in nests made on the ground or in trees. New nests are built every day.
  • Gorillas have 16 different types of call and can be quite vocal.
  • Mountain gorillas live in stable family troops of about 10 individuals.
  • A gorilla group is called a troop and will consist of one dominant male and several females.
  • Gorillas can live to over 40 years old in the wild.

Orangutans: Orangutans live on the Indonesian island of Sumatra and in both the Malaysian and Indonesian portions of the island of Borneo. There are three species of orangutan, the Bornean orangutan, the Sumatran orangutan, and the Tapanuli orangutan, which was discovered in 2017.

orangutan mother with child in nature

All species of orangutan are critically endangered. Although they look fairly similar, Bornean orangutans have darker red coats and rounder faces. Here are some more fascinating facts about orangutans:

  • The name ‘orangutan’ directly translates from Malay to ‘person of the forest’.
  • The world’s largest tree-living mammal, orangutans spend over 90% of their lives high up in the forest canopy.
  • Orangutans sleep in nests built from folded leaves and branches.
  • Orangutans use tools like sticks to catch termites and collect honey.
  • Adult males are mostly solitary, and only socialize with sexually receptive females for brief courtships.
  • Orangutans have an arm span of about 2.2 m from fingertip to fingertip.
  • Young orangutans stay with their mother until they reach about 7 years old.
  • Orangutans use both their hands and feet while gathering food and traveling through the trees.
  • Some adult male orangutans develop flaps of fatty tissue on both sides of their face called flanges.
  • An orangutan has a long lifespan and can live to over 30 years in the wild.
  • Orangutans are highly intelligent and have been observed making a glove out of leaves when handling prickly fruits like durian.
  • Orangutans have a diet of mostly fruit and leaves, but have also been known to feast on nuts, bark, insects, and even bird’s eggs.

Key habitats of the orangutan include the Gunung Leuser National Park and Tanjung Puting National Park.

Threats Facing the Great Apes

Great Ape populations are dwindling rapidly thanks to numerous human threats including:

  • Habitat Loss: This includes deforestation due to changing land use, logging, agriculture, palm oil plantations, human encroachment, and development of infrastructure.
  • Hunting: The bushmeat trade, poaching, and the use of animal parts for traditional medicine all threaten the survival of Great Apes.
  • Disease: Highly infectious diseases like the Ebola virus pose critical threats to gorillas, and human pathogens also pose a significant threat, since these apes haven’t developed the necessary immunity to these diseases.
  • Climate Change: Disrupted weather patterns impact food availability, quality of habitat, and lead to a higher frequency of wildfires which leads to habitat loss.
  • Human Conflict: Civil unrest and ongoing warfare disrupt habitats and fragment and displace populations, especially in certain parts of Africa that are home to chimps, gorillas, and bonobos.
  • Illegal Wildlife Trade: Baby Great Apes are often stolen from their mothers after they have been hunted and are sold on the black market as pets.

What Can Be Done to Save the Great Apes?

  • The establishment of protected areas: National parks and wildlife reserves can protect great ape habitats and ensure their continued survival.
  • Taking anti-poaching action: Combating poaching, the bushmeat trade, and the illegal wildlife trade relies on coordinated law enforcement and community involvement.
  • The restoration of habitats: Reforestation and environmental restoration projects are critical to reclaiming lost habitats and giving great apes greater ranges to live in.
  • Scientific research and monitoring: Studies in the wild of great ape populations deliver valuable insights into their behavior, which can inform conservation strategies.
  • Engaging local communities: Local communities play an important role in great ape conservation. Education leads to peaceful coexistence and better protection efforts.

How You Can Help

There are a number of conservation initiatives working towards the protection of great apes and their habitats. You can help them by making a donation or, in some cases, even adopting a great ape. Some countries offer ecotourism tours where you can get up close to the great apes in an ethical way. Here are a few organizations you might want to support:

  • Born Free: Born Free is an international wildlife and conservation charity. They work to stop the exploitation and suffering of animals living in captivity or in the wild. Born Free actively campaigns for a future where animals and people can co-exist and where threatened and endangered species are protected for future generations. You can donate to Born Free here, adopt an animal here, and shop here.
  • World Wildlife Fund (WWF): The WWF collaborates with local communities to conserve natural resources, and build a future where people and nature thrive together. Together with partners at all levels, they transform markets and policies toward sustainability, tackle the threats driving the climate crisis, and protect and restore wildlife and their habitats. You can donate to the WWF here, adopt an animal here, and shop here.
  • Greenpeace: Greenpeace uses non-violent creative action to pave the way towards a greener, more peaceful world and to confront the systems that threaten our environment. With 26 offices covering 55 countries, Greenpeace works directly with communities on the frontlines as they protect the environments they call home. You can donate to their work here.
  • The Gorilla Organization: The Gorilla Organization was founded in the early 1990s to support the anti-poaching patrols created by the pioneering primatologist Dr. Dian Fossey. With a fundraising and administration headquarters in London supporting fieldwork in Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo, projects beyond anti-poaching include organic farming, tree planting, and gorilla-friendly beekeeping. You can donate to their efforts here, adopt a gorilla here, and shop here.
  • The Jane Goodall Institute: The Jane Goodall Institute promotes understanding and protection of great apes and their habitat. Following in the trailblazing footsteps of their founder, they lead a movement of conservation for the common good. Whether they’re restoring chimpanzee habitat, improving women’s health in a nearby village, or working with their Roots & Shoots youth groups in nearly 100 countries, they work hard to find practical ways to make the greatest lasting impact for animals, people, and the environment. You can donate here and shop here.

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