Great apes could lose up to 94 per cent of their homelands in Africa by 2050

A 'perfect storm' could cause great apes in Africa to lose up to 94 per cent of their homelands by 2050.

Researchers led from Liverpool John Moores University modelled how the apes will fair under both a business-as-usual and an optimistic, conservation-driven scenario.

Even if steps are taken to protect the primates, the team found that their habitat ranges will likely shrink by 84 per cent on top of the losses already experienced.

Great apes like gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos are already either endangered or critically endangered — but the changes they will face are 'really bad', the team said.

In fact, half of the habitat losses projected by the researcher's models will occur in protected areas like national parks.

'It’s a perfect storm for many of our closest genetic relatives, many of which are flagship species for conservation efforts within Africa and worldwide,' primate ecologist Joana Carvalho of the Liverpool John Moores University said.

In their study, Dr Carvalho and colleagues analysed data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on ape populations, threats and conservation actions at hundreds of different sites across Africa over two decades.

According to Dr Carvalho, the model comes with inherent uncertainties — but, she said, 'there is going to be change and not for the best. Even the ranges we see at the moment are much smaller than they have been.'

Compared to many other species, great apes are poor at migrating, as they have specific diets, low population densities and they reproduce slowly.

Because of this, Dr Carvalho said, many of their species may not be able to adapt in time to their changing circumstances.

The team's model found that projected range losses were not much better under the scenario where efforts were made to combat climate change, habitat loss and other human-driven influences on the apes.

Specifically, this still resulted in an 85 per cent loss in habitat extent, compared to 94 per cent under a 'business as usual scenario'.

'What is predicted is really bad,' Dr Carvalho said. 

According to the researchers, the key to combatting range loss among the great apes going forward is to enable migration by creating links between places in which apes live — alongside creating new protected areas into which they can move.

As an example of quality conservation work already being undertaken, the team pointed to efforts in Gabon, central Africa, where farming, mining and road/rail construction is being focussed on already degraded areas, rather than intact forests.

However, the experts said, the greatest protection for the great apes might well come in the form of consumers from wealthy country demanding sustainably produced goods.

At present, the mining, palm oil and timber industries are among the greatest threats to great ape populations. 

'There must be global responsibility for stopping the decline of great apes,' paper author and primate conservationist Hjalmar Kühl of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Leipzig told the Guardian.

'All nations benefiting from these resources have a responsibility to ensure a better future for great apes, their habitats and the people living there.'