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New science: a path for protecting chimps and more

© Trond Larsen

Protecting nature starts with science. Here’s a roundup of recent scientific research published by Conservation International experts.

1. Study takes measure of what chimps need to thrive

The global population of humankind’s closest relative has declined by more than 80 percent since 1990. 

In Liberia, home to one of the largest remaining populations of Western chimpanzees, a new study has found that the single most important factor for protecting the West African country’s chimps is simply to give them space — specifically, ensuring that their habitats are surrounded by 1 to 3 kilometers (0.6 to 1.9 miles) of intact forest.

“As Liberia’s economy recovers following years of civil war, forests — where chimpanzees make their homes — are starting to fall victim to unsustainable oil palm development, logging and the expansion of farms,” said Conservation International scientist Miroslav Honzak, a co-author on the study. “But these forests are crucial for providing habitat to chimpanzees, as well as food, fresh water and jobs for the people of Liberia.”

Using wildlife surveys and detailed maps of Liberia’s ecosystems that were recently developed by Conservation International and NASA, the researchers determined which areas chimpanzees are most likely to live in and identified the conditions they need to thrive. They found that along with intact forests, chimpanzees prefer to dwell in areas with rugged terrains and higher elevations.  

“Chimpanzees are highly mobile and frequently travel across wide expanses of the forest to forage for food, socialize or mate,” Honzak said. “However, roads or oil palm plantations can obstruct their paths. Protecting large chunks of the forest and creating paths to connect fragmented habitats — known as wildlife corridors — are effective ways to keep primate communities thriving.”  

Protecting chimpanzee habitats has the added benefit of helping Liberia achieve its national goal to conserve 30 percent of its remaining forests, Honzak added. 

“It is all about balancing protection and development across a landscape,” Honzak said. “These findings and the detailed maps we produced can help decision-makers identify and avoid chimpanzee habitats while planning for sustainable development.” 

This publication was developed as part of a partnership between Conservation International and Arizona State University. It was financed in part by Betty and Gordon Moore and the National Science Foundation. 

 2. Legal rollbacks of protections put oceans at risk 

Marine protected areas are critical for ocean conservation — and for securing the food and jobs that oceans provide for millions of people around the world. 

However, a recent paper found that since 2001, at least six countries have rolled back legal protections on around 1.2 million square kilometers (463,322 square miles) of ocean — an area nearly the size of South Africa. 

Tracking the legal changes that reduce, eliminate or scale back restrictions in marine protected areas worldwide, the researchers discovered that in most cases, rollbacks made way for commercial fishing, industrial-scale resource extraction and other development. 

“These legal changes can undermine the effectiveness of marine protected areas — something we cannot afford, particularly as climate change accelerates and overfishing continues to take a huge toll on many species,” said Conservation International scientist Rachel Golden Kroner, who co-authored the study. 

“Establishing areas for ocean conservation is an important first step to protect biodiversity, slow climate breakdown and support livelihoods. But we must also make sure that these areas stay protected.” 

According to the researchers, improving ocean conservation requires countries to prevent legal rollbacks that increase industrial development in marine protected areas. They added that governments must also improve transparency and participation in policy decisions, and increase funding and enforcement efforts. These steps will also help support the global push to effectively protect 30 percent of the ocean by 2030 — an effort scientists say is necessary to limit the impacts of climate change on our oceans and prevent the widespread extinction of marine species.

3. A blueprint for saving rivers and the species they support

Freshwater ecosystems such as rivers and lakes cover less than 1 percent of the Earth’s surface, yet they support more than half its fish species

Despite their importance, only 17 percent of rivers are free-flowing and located within protected areas, according to new research.

“Freshwater ecosystems are in dire straits: The populations of species that live within them have fallen, on average, by 84 percent since 1970. Meanwhile, nearly 70 percent of wetlands have been lost since 1900,” said Ian Harrison, a freshwater scientist at Conservation International who co-edited this research. 

“These losses in freshwater ecosystems and the species they support are largely due to dam construction, pollution, water removal and other human activities that drive habitat loss. It’s possible to reverse this damage, but only if we act now.” 

In a collection of 14 studies, the researchers — a group of policy, law and freshwater experts, including Harrison, who co-authored one of the studies — offer a blueprint for protecting the world’s rivers and the species that depend on them. 

They found that effective approaches to managing rivers sustainably differ depending on political, cultural and geographic factors. For example, in the United States, the national Wild and Scenic Rivers System prohibits dam development on designated stretches of water, ensuring that fish habitats are not disrupted. Meanwhile, in Mexico, a network of environmental water reserves — catchments to maintain the proper flow of water — was created to support the ecology of freshwater systems, while providing fresh water to people.  

Additionally, many groups around the world, particularly in parts of South America, are seeking to confer legal rights to rivers in order to protect them — a trend known as the Rights of Rivers movement

However, rivers often flow beyond regional or national jurisdictions, which can make them particularly difficult to protect, Harrison stressed.  

“In many cases, a single protected area isn’t going to span the entirety of a long, free-flowing river,” Harrison said. “This means that multiple conservation strategies — and in some cases, cooperation between governments — may be necessary to conserve rivers and maintain the many services they provide, from fresh water to food.”


Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: A chimpanzee at Liberia and Chimpanzee Rescue and Protection, a locally-managed chimpanzee sanctuary and conservation center in Liberia that works to rescue chimpanzees who are victims of the illegal bushmeat and pet trades (© Trond Larsen)