Chimpanzees take calculated risks to survive alongside humans

Thursday, 25 February 2021

Chimpanzee research

Researchers have used a ‘landscape of fear’ framework to study how endangered western chimpanzees in West Africa perceive predator risks and adapt their behaviours to forage for the best available food.

The study, by researchers at Oxford Brookes and Exeter universities, used 12 months of camera trap data to look at how humans and chimpanzees overlapped in their use of forests and local habitats.

With over 60% of primates threatened with extinction due to agricultural expansion, wildlife has had to adapt to survive. In West Africa, nearly all of the habitat occupied by the western chimpanzee is influenced by humans; and the animals were observed to take calculated risks by accessing human-cultivated food sources when wild food sources were scarce. 

Chimpanzees can quickly adapt to survive

Lead author Dr Elena Bersacola, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at Exeter University said: “Human activities, including hunting and forest conversion to agriculture, pasture land and urban areas, are causing significant wildlife population declines globally. As a large-bodied, innovative and flexible species, chimpanzees can quickly adapt to complex and dynamic environments, including landscapes affected by human activities. Our research shows that human-wildlife coexistence is possible when animals can meet their own requirements and manage human-induced risks.” 

The study revealed that chimpanzee use of space could be predicted by the availability of naturalised oil-palm fruit. Chimpanzees used areas away from villages and agriculture more intensively, but when wild fruits were scarce they increasingly accessed village areas with cultivated fruits. 

Wildlife assesses trade-offs between risks and food

However, this practice of moving into cultivated areas brings risks of injury and death - with hunting, accidental road collisions, snares and traps all potential dangers. And the presence of humans may restrict animal movements, bringing a loss of feeding opportunities and the ability to disperse - which could lead to community isolation and even extinction. The researchers say that understanding how wildlife balances these trade-offs in environments affected by human activities is crucial to develop effective strategies to reduce risks of negative interactions, including aggression and disease transmission. 

Catherine M. Hill Professor of Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University added: “Working with local people to address negative human-chimpanzee interactions in villages will have a larger impact for chimpanzee conservation, rather than focusing on protecting forest blocks alone. Detailed human-wildlife interaction maps can be used in land use planning and agricultural initiatives with farmers, forest restoration programmes and planting of wildlife food sources away from villages. This will help protect the wild, low-risk food sources of chimpanzees.” 

It was important not to habituate the chimpanzees to human presence, to protect both chimpanzees and people: "Elena got around this problem by setting up a patchwork of camera traps throughout one chimpanzee community’s home range and monitoring their use of space," said Dr Kimberley Hockings, of the University of Exeter.

The paper: Chimpanzees balance resources and risk in an anthropogenic landscape of fear is published in Scientific Reports 

Pictured below: Adult male crossing a road by Kimberly Hockings

Adult male crossing a road