The International Day of Forests was first observed on March 21st 2013, following a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly. The aim was to raise awareness of the importance of forests for the benefit of current and future generations, and to highlight the rapid decline of the world’s forested environments.

Within those dwindling forests live some of the rarest creatures on Earth. The great apes (orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas) are human’s closest living animal cousins, but they are all predicted to be extinct in the wild within a human generation if deforestation continues apace. Conservation of their natural habitats is essential if the species are to survive. Equally essential is the need to ensure those great apes living in sanctuaries in Africa and SE Asia are able to exhibit the behavioural profiles needed to survive in natural habitats, so that they can play their role in reinforcing wild populations.

Currently we are in Cameroon where we will working with our partners the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA: the largest association of wildlife sanctuaries in Africa), and Ape Action Africa (AAA: one of the largest chimpanzee sanctuaries in Africa) to run workshops at PASA’s veterinary meeting. Our role is to help the primate sanctuary community translate research knowledge on the behavioural ecology of wild chimpanzees into practical ways to improve the wild-type behaviours and welfare of the chimpanzees in their care. These chimps are mostly victims of the bushmeat and pet trades; many arrive at the sanctuaries having been kept in terrible conditions with significant nutritional, emotional and physical problems. The sanctuaries are amazingly skilled at bringing these vulnerable creatures back to life. But chimpanzees can live for up to 60 years, and providing for their biological and welfare needs throughout their lifetime is a major undertaking. A key issue is how to replicate the complexity of forest, and the physical and mental challenges it poses for wild chimpanzees on a daily basis, in the relatively simple and unchanging enclosures in which sanctuary apes live. This is needed to ensure healthy, safe populations on tight budgets.

At the University of Birmingham we have extensive expertise in great ape locomotor ecology, social behaviour and the cognitive abilities that underpin these systems. We have applied our knowledge of how wild great apes deal with the demands of their natural habitat to devise an Enclosure Design Tool (EDT). This tool is designed to help zoos and sanctuaries compare the behaviour of their great apes to wild great apes, and to modify enclosures to elicit natural behavioural profiles. We have spent the last year working with Ape Action Africa to apply the tool to chimpanzee sanctuaries. Together we have created more ‘functional’ forest enclosures where the environments in which the animals move, sleep, feed and rest present similar mechanical problems and intellectual challenges to those the chimpanzees would face in the wild.

Currently in Africa few chimpanzees are reintroduced back into the wild due to lack of available habitat. But the legacy of our work with PASA and AAA is that, if and when the opportunity for reintroduction becomes possible the chimps will have a better chance of survival and of reinforcing sustainable wild populations. In the meantime we have improved the quality of life of those in the sanctuaries, allowing them to behave, to the maximum extent possible, like the chimpanzees they are.

Dr Susannah KS Thorpe and Dr Jackie Chappell, School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham

This brief is based on a research programme by Dr Susannah Thorpe, Dr Jackie Chappell, Dr Julia Myatt and Dr Johanna Neufuss from the School of Biosciences. The research is funded by the ARCUS Foundation, the Natural Environment Research Council, the International Primatological Society and DM France Hayhurst.