Chimpanzee studies highlight disease risk to all endangered wildlife

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | Jan. 29, 2018

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Famed primatologist Jane Goodall with Emory disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie, who is working with the Jane Goodall Institute to study the health of chimpanzees in Tanzania's Gombe National Park.

The American Journal of Primatology just published a special edition bringing together experts who have contributed to the understanding of chimpanzee health at Gombe National Park in Tanzania and beyond. Gombe is the site where Jane Goodall pioneered her behavioral research of chimpanzees. Goodall’s work at Gombe began in 1960, and continues today through the Jane Goodall Institute, making it the longest field study of any animal.

Thomas Gillespie, associate professor in Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences, was a guest editor of the special journal edition, along with fellow scientists Dominic Travis and Elizabeth Lonsdorf. Gillespie works at the interface of biodiversity conservation and global health. Much of his research examines how and why anthropogenic influences within tropical forests alter disease dynamics and place wild primates, people and other animals in such ecosystems at increased risk of pathogen exchange.

Following is an interview with Gillespie about the special journal issue and why research on chimpanzee health is important.

What is the current status of chimpanzees?

Both the common chimpanzee and the bonobo, the two chimpanzee subspecies, are endangered. Chimpanzees are the most closely related species to humans and we see them declining precipitously due to habit loss and poaching. Typical estimates for the chimpanzee population are in the hundreds of thousands. That’s far less than the number of people in Atlanta for the entire chimpanzee species spread across all of Africa. There is a real risk of chimpanzees going locally extinct in core parts of their habitat. Chimpanzees communities in West Africa, for instance, have very little habitat left. They’re often found living in scraps of habitat between villages.

How important is health to conservation? 

Wildlife health is a critical conservation issue, but that’s something that’s only recently been recognized. Wildlife populations already dealing with poaching and habitat loss are more vulnerable to being knocked out by disease. It becomes even more difficult when they are exposed to new pathogens, from humans or domesticated animals.

On top of that, primates are dealing with shifts in the dynamics of pathogens like Ebola. Ebola’s been around for a long time in natural systems but now we’re seeing big mortality events in wild chimpanzees and other apes. The Lowland Gorillas are actually listed as critically endangered due to Ebola.

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