The Impact of Climate Change on Chimpanzees

Written By: Matt Brunette, JGI Canada Volunteer
Category: From The Field, Great Apes

There is no question that climate change continues to cause species loss around the world. By the end of the 21st century, scientists anticipate global temperatures will increase by 1.5°C to 4.5°C. Regions will be impacted differently, with some areas expected to warm faster than others. Africa, as a continent, is highly vulnerable to climate change – both communities and ecosystems have already experienced significant impacts.

How will chimpanzees be affected by climate change?

Across Africa, great apes already face numerous threats from habitat loss, hunting, and disease, resulting in sharp declines in populations. Now climate change is also affecting great ape survival.

One study found that changing rainfall patterns are altering lowland forest and savannah ecosystems in Central Africa. Increasingly frequent droughts are causing vegetation loss, which in turn are rendering chimp habitat inhospitable. Chimpanzees living in mountain forests will fare better, as cooler conditions at higher altitudes act as a buffer to variations in temperature.

While forest ecosystems are shrinking, deserts are expanding. Researchers have noted the gradual expansion of the Sahara Desert due to unusually long hot and dry weather patterns in West Africa. This triggers the gradual movement of entire ecosystems, displacing food and habitat vegetation.

Changes in climate result in hot, dry conditions that increase the risk of wildfires, threatening existing habitats and ecosystems.

On the one hand, chimpanzees can, theoretically, adapt or migrate to new areas. But their movement is limited by growing human populations and sprawling urban areas. Human land-use patterns have already encroached on many natural habitats, and climate change is likely to increase the risks of human-chimpanzee conflict. This has already been observed in Bossou, Guinea, where there are few forested areas and chimpanzees rely heavily on farmer’s crops in times of food scarcity.

For the most part, chimpanzees have the natural advantages of large group size, small body size, and dietary flexibility which increase their adaptive capacity in times of environmental stress. Such advantages make chimpanzees more tolerant to arid conditions than other great apes, such as gorillas. Both chimps and gorillas can cope with a wide range of annual rainfall patterns, however, both are very sensitive to variations in temperature and survive best in habitats that have relatively constant temperatures throughout the year. With temperature and precipitation variability expected to increase, scientists anticipate that great ape populations will be adversely affected.

Increasing human influence is negatively affecting natural chimpanzee behaviours.

Not all climate change impacts are obvious. A recent study discovered that common chimpanzee behaviours are actually disappearing because of their proximity to humans and climate change. Scientists found that there was an 88% decline in the number of natural behaviours chimpanzees showed when living near areas with lots of people and no forests.

The Jane Goodall Institute of Canada is committed to conserving natural chimp habitat through community conservation initiatives, such as Delivering Healthy Futures in the Democratic Republic of Congo. By improving the wellbeing and livelihoods of communities living near wildlife corridors, we can simultaneously conserve and restore nearby habitat for wild chimpanzees. Our efforts will continue to consider and plan for potential climate change impacts in our projects across Africa, allowing us to help communities adapt and mitigate risks, while also ensuring that we can help reduce the effects of climate change on important habitat.