Humans have hunted great apes, which include bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, destroyed their habitats, and transmitted fatal diseases to them. Five of the seven recognized species of great apes have been listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, meaning they are on the brink of extinction.

Traditional methods of conservation have helped, but these methods are no longer enough, say University of Michigan researchers John Mitani and Andrew Marshall. In collaboration with an international team of colleagues, they have suggested new routes of conservation to help ensure the survival of great apes. Their findings are published in Nature Human Behaviour.

The urgency of new routes to great ape conservation

Marshall: John and I, like many field researchers, feel a strong connection to the apes we study. We’ve been privileged to spend lots of time with them—John, primarily in Africa, and me primarily in Southeast Asia. Despite considerable effort and investment in conservation, ape populations are continuing to decline, many of them very dramatically. Five of the seven recognized taxa are now critically endangered. Rather than focusing on the current plight of apes, which is well known, we wanted to be forward looking and propose things we could do that might improve the situation.

Mitani: There is a moral imperative to do this. These are iconic species that everybody can identify with. This is because they are our closest living relatives and essentially our kin. We’re living at a time when we are losing tons of species in a mass extinction event created by us. If we can’t save these animals, then there’s really very little hope for the rest of biodiversity. I just can’t imagine a world without these animals.

Improving security of protected areas by increasing funding, fighting corruption, employing scientific/technological tactics to improve enforcement; partnering with local communities to develop tourism and working with local people who possess extensive knowledge about the habitats and behavior of great apes

Marshall: Even if we do a perfect job of protecting every protected area where great apes persist now, that’s not enough. For orangutans, which is the group that I know best, even if we were to protect every single orangutan in every protected area in perpetuity, that is not enough to ensure their long-term persistence, which means that the future of conservation must also address issues outside protected areas.

If we only think about strictly protected areas, we’re missing lots of opportunities to do good conservation. That’s one of the things that we want to draw people’s attention to: There are lots and lots of apes that live outside national parks and they are more threatened than those that live inside national parks and other protected areas. But they also deserve our care and protection.

Mitani: Another point we’re trying to make is historically, despite the fact that we’ve devoted years and years to the study of these animals, most of this has been in protected areas and away from people. We are calling for more work where it’s currently needed in areas where people are living alongside apes. The reason for this is the world has gotten a lot smaller. In my lifetime, the human population has tripled. Humans are everywhere, doing things and edging apes out as a consequence.