Researchers at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis on campus recently discovered the missing variable in the mysterious population decline among endangered African great apes.

The scientists’ findings — published in the online science journal PLoS ONE — indicate mortality rates among primates such as gorillas and chimpanzees are increasing at exponential rates largely due to infectious diseases rather than only poaching and habitat loss as previously believed. Severe disease outbreaks threatening the species’ future include the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus and the hemorrhagic fever Ebola that have high mortality rates and affect humans.

According to Sadie Ryan, Assistant Professor of Ecology at the State University of New York and one of the paper’s lead authors, local authorities are attempting to barricade the primates’ territories to prevent human encroachment from spreading diseases such as the common cold and influenza into the populations.

“If we could stop people from entering those protected areas, put up a fence or something, and tourists and poachers stayed out, and we could stop the habitat destruction that’s going on right now, then those populations might have time to recover and they might bounce back,” Ryan said. “But I don’t think it’s realistic to expect a perfect future like that, which is why being active [and intervening] is what we might need to help these animals.”

However, Ryan said tourism in the primates’ territory provides significant funding for the local economy.

“A lot of the fundraising for conservation campaigns is derived from tourist dollars,” Ryan said.

Additionally, Ryan said many locals rely on money acquired from illegal poaching activities.

“If we wanted to intervene to help conserve, for instance American garter snakes, everyone could probably agree very quickly and get mobilized in efforts to conserve them, but when we’re talking about these African apes, our closest living relatives, it becomes a much more emotionally charged topic,” Ryan said.

Officials are distributing vaccinations using dart guns that allow precise dosing while keeping animals close and accessible. Although authorities also use oral baiting to slip medicine into ape food, it is not guaranteed the animals will consume the food and certain fruits can alter the medicines’ chemical composition.

According to Ryan, the treatments are still experimental and require continual research to counter new mutations of viral strains.

“A big issue is, when you’re doing preventative medicine, do you know what you’re expecting?” Ryan said.

Despite concerns that medical intervention could potentially harm the primates, Ryan said the conservatory methods are necessary to preserve the species.

“One of my passions is conserving wildlife,” Ryan said. “It invokes all our heartstrings because they are our closest relatives.”