Endangered chimpanzee conservation: saving our closest cousins

By The University of Western Australia

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Meet the Researcher

I'm Natasha Coutts, a PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia, studying primate behavioural ecology.

Throughout my scientific career I’ve been lucky enough to work with a variety of species including orangutans, Tasmanian devils, barn owls, dasyurids, tamar wallabies, chacma baboons, blue and vervet monkeys, western lowland gorillas, and now eastern chimpanzees.

Although the projects and animals involved have all been quite different, the common theme tying them all together is conservation.

I believe that, through research, we can find solutions to overcome many of today’s biggest conservation challenges, which will help us better protect threatened species.

The Project

Chimpanzees are endangered and habitat degradation is one of the main drivers of their decline throughout their entire distribution. A particularly pervasive form of habitat degradation is forest fragmentation.

Fragmentation is the breaking apart of once large, intact, continuous forests into smaller, isolated fragments. These fragments are typically less biodiverse than intact forests, and this reduction in biodiversity can result in poorer diets and altered social behaviour in the inhabiting animals. Fragments can also prevent gene flow, as the animal populations become isolated from one another. Together, these changes in habitat can have serious implications for the long term health and viability of the affected animal populations.

Another possible way that forest fragmentation can affect animals is via changes in their gut microbiomes, which is the suite of microbial organisms living inside the gastrointestinal tract of animals. Every day, more and more research reveals how integral a healthy, functional gut microbiome is to the overall health and condition of the host.

In humans, altered gut microbiomes have been associated with a range of different health problems and diseases including asthma, obesity, and Crohn’s disease. Given how closely related humans and chimpanzees are, it’s likely that changes in the gut microbiome of chimpanzees would also affect their health and wellbeing. However, because gut microbiome research is a relatively new field and can be quite a complex issue to investigate, no studies to date have looked at the link between habitat fragmentation and the gut microbiome in chimpanzees.

Why this research is important

This research is the first of its kind in chimpanzees, and is taking a holistic, integrative approach to understanding the link between habitat fragmentation and their gut microbiome by looking at how changes in their diet and social behaviour affect the composition of their gut microbes. Because the gut microbiome is strongly associated with host health, this study has many potential implications for the management and conservation of populations living in fragmented areas. It may also provide a deeper insight into the evolution of the human gut microbiome, given that chimpanzees are our closest living relative.

Additionally, the populations that will be studied live at some of the highest altitudes ever recorded for chimpanzees. Very little research currently exists on montane chimpanzees compared to their lower elevation counterparts, so this project will also provide some much needed insight into the behavioural and ecological adaptations of chimpanzees to high elevation montane environments. Knowing the full extent of the behavioural and ecological diversity among chimpanzees across all of the different habitat types they occupy is crucial to the ongoing conservation of this iconic, endangered ape.

The approach

I’ll be spending about 18 months observing the chimps, collecting their faecal samples, and doing monthly vegetation surveys at two different sites in Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda. Nyungwe National Park is a high elevation rainforest in the southwestern corner of Rwanda. Covering an area of almost 1020km2, it is one of the largest remaining montane forests in Africa. Nyungwe is home to 285 bird species, 13 primate species including the endangered eastern chimpanzee, and contains over 600 plant species, making it one of the most biologically important regions in East Africa.

The sites I will be working at are Mayebe and Cyamudongo. Mayebe is in the centre of the park and is home to a community of about 50 chimpanzees. Cyamudongo is a 4km2 forest fragment approximately 10 km west of the continuous park, which has been isolated since the 1960s. Although small in size, it supports 4 different primate species including a community of approximately 40 chimpanzees.

While in the field I’ll be working with a team of local field assistants, trackers, camp manager, and students from The University of Rwanda and Kitabi College of Conservation & Environmental Management, so my research will also be helping to support the local community through employment and education.

The collected faecal samples will be processed in the biology labs at The University of Rwanda. This process will involve extracting and preserving DNA from the microorganisms found within the faecal samples. I will then bring the extracted DNA back to Perth where they will be sequenced to determine the composition of each chimpanzee’s gut microbiome. These results, together with the behavioural and ecological data, will be compared across both sites to reveal any differences between the two.

How your support will help chimpanzees

Your contribution will allow me to conduct my research, which will benefit chimpanzees by

  • gaining a better understanding about how changes in their habitat can lead to changes in their gut microbiomes
  • establishing a baseline for further studies on the relationship between habitat and chimpanzee gut microbiomes, health and conservation
  • potentially providing empirical support for conservation efforts that aim to minimise habitat degradation
  • adding to the small amount of knowledge on the behavioural and ecological adaptations of chimpanzees to high altitude environments

Funds donated will be used to pay for:

  • Rwandan research permit & visa fees
  • wages for my local field team
  • campsite fees, camping gear, and food for me and my local field team
  • equipment such as a GPS and battery pack
  • lab tests such as DNA extraction and sequencing

Thank you for your interest in my project. Your support will help to provide a better understanding of the effects of habitat loss and fragmentation on chimpanzees, which will help to improve efforts to conserve this iconic and endangered species. For project updates please follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and help spread the word by sharing our social media pages with your friends and family.

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The University of Western Australia