Research finds how apes exploit environments to coexist with humans

Wednesday, 08 April 2015

An adult male chimpanzee at Bossou in Guinea, West Africa, transporting a papaya fruit back to the forest

An article written by a team of research scientists, led by Oxford Brookes, states that apes across the globe, regardless of whether they are in protected areas, are adapting to living in human populations at an extraordinary pace.

In the article, which has been published in the April issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution, an inter-disciplinary team of scientists (primatologists, evolutionary psychologists and biologists, conservation biologists) came together to demonstrate how no long-term great ape research site, even those in protected areas, are free of human influence, and how research on apes across the anthropogenic continuum offers new opportunities to develop understanding of great ape flexibility in the face of unprecedentedly rapid environmental changes. 

Marc Ancrenaz, from the HUTAN/Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Programme in Malaysia and a co-author of the study says “People have a global impact everywhere and the traditional way to think about conservation need to evolve, an opinion that is strongly reflected in this article”.

Understanding great ape behaviour in human-influenced habitats is crucial for conservation but it’s also fascinating how apes take account of the risks of exploiting these habitats and respond accordingly.

Dr Kimberley Hockings, Anthropology Centre for Conservation, Environment and Development, Oxford Brookes University

Whenever great apes are exposed to potentially dangerous stimuli (e.g., vehicles, farmers, snares, crop protection techniques, domestic dogs), or new food sources (e.g., crops) research scientists have opportunities to examine their behavioural flexibility and the role it might play in their survival, as well as opening a window into the evolution of modern human and ape adaptability. The article explores how great apes – unless hunted or persecuted –have the behavioural flexibility needed to exploit these new ‘human-modified’ environments.  

Dr Kimberley Hockings from Oxford Brookes University in the UK and the Centre for Research in Anthropology in Portugal, lead author of the article said: “Understanding great ape behaviour in human-influenced habitats is crucial for conservation but it’s also fascinating how apes take account of the risks of exploiting these habitats and respond accordingly. 

“For example, chimpanzees at different sites across Africa become more cohesive and quieter when entering agricultural areas to feed on human crops, with some reports of crop feeding at night to avoid human confrontations. Also, during road-crossings by chimpanzees, the positioning of dominant and bolder individuals varies according to the risk posed by humans and vehicle traffic with adult males displaying more protective behaviours when risks are higher. 

“Chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas show “snare awareness” and at some sites have been shown to deactivate snares safely and remove snares from the limbs of conspecifics. Despite this, many individuals still suffer limb injuries from snares, but chimpanzees and mountain gorillas in Uganda have been shown to adapt their feeding techniques to their disabilities, thus enabling them to survive under natural conditions.”

The time for delegating pristine ‘natural’ environments to be the sole solution for preserving great apes in the ‘wild’ is, unfortunately, long gone. While parks and other protected areas must remain a key conservation strategy, the survival of large, diverse populations requires finding ways for humans and apes to coexist outside protected areas as well.

The full article, ‘Apes in the Anthropocene: Flexibility and Survival’ is available on the website of Trends in Ecology and Evolution.