Our chocolate cravings are bitter news for primates

Cocoa is the primary ingredient in everything from the most delicious, delicate of Swiss chocolates to the most run-of-the-mill, mundane of Hershey’s Kisses, and one third of the world’s supply comes from a small nation on the western coast of Africa called Côte d’Ivoire. Otherwise known as the Ivory Coast, the nation is the world’s leading producer of cocoa, exporting some 1.5 million metric tons of the beans from the plant Theobroma cacao each year. It constitutes around 10% of their annual GDP.

The Ivory Coast is also part of a global biodiversity hotspot called the Guinean Forest Region, which is home to more than 2,200 endemic plant species and 270 vertebrates. Côte d’Ivoire boasts 22 primate species, including the western subspecies of chimpanzee, which is the second highest for primates among West African countries.

The problem, of course, is that the two things for which Côte d’Ivoire is known have a hard time coexisting, which makes an M&M a bitter pill to swallow. Today, more than 2.4 million hectares of land are devoted to cocoa plantations. Those plantations are most often created by ridding old growth forest of its tall trees and replacing them with cocoa plants. One hundred years ago, there were some 16 million hectares of “high canopy” forest in Côte d’Ivoire. Today that number is closer to 4 million and is decreasing by around 1% each year. Most of what remains exists as small, fragmented forest patches, plus the larger Tai National Park.

In an effort to protect the nation’s endangered (Western chimpanzee, white-naped mangabey, Roloway monkey, Bay colobus) and critically endangered (Miss Waldron’s red colobus) primates, a system of national parks and forest reserves has been set up, which makes agriculture illegal in those spaces…in theory, at least. Enforcing those regulations is a different story.

Roloway monkey. Photo via Hans Hillewaert/Wikimedia Commons.

Roloway monkey. (Photo via Hans Hillewaert/Wikimedia Commons.)

Between 2010 and 2013, researchers from Université Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Centre Suisse de Recherches Scientifiques, and Université Jean Lorougnon Guédé all in Côte d’Ivoire, and The Ohio State University, conducted primate surveys of 23 protected areas. This study’s focus was on the fragments, rather than Tai National Park: 18 forest reserves and five smaller national parks. The goal was simply to find out how many primate species were using each of the protected areas, how many humans were living within or adjacent to those areas, and the extent of habitat degradation—in particular, the degradation due to cocoa farms.

Historically, there have been between eight and eleven diurnal primate species present in any given protected area. In addition to the species mentioned above, that includes the lesser spot-nosed monkey, Campbell’s monkey, green monkey, Patas monkey, olive colobus monkey, white-thighed black and white colobus monkey, Western black and white colobus monkey, and the olive baboon.

“The world’s demand for chocolate has been very hard on the endangered primates of Ivory Coast,” said Ohio State University anthropologist W. Scott McGraw in an official statement. “But when we started walking through these areas we were just stunned by the scale of illegal cocoa production. It is now the major cause of deforestation in these parks.” Twenty of the 23 protected areas contained illegal farms; 93% of those farms were for cocoa, but the researchers also found banana, yams, maize, rice, and a handful of other vegetables. Nearly three quarters of the land area they surveyed had been transformed into cocoa plantations, leaving just over 1,000 square kilometers uncultivated.

From a statistical perspective, the researchers discovered a significant correlation between the proportion of protected area converted to cocoa farms and the absence of primate species. It’s really quite simple: the more the land was used for cocoa, the fewer primate species they found.

Each of the 23 protected areas had at least one primate extirpation, but “most are missing many more primate taxa,” write the researchers. Five lost half of their primate species, and 13 had lost their entire primate population. “There are parks in Ivory Coast with no forests and no primates, but a sea of cocoa plants,” said McGraw.

Neither the western black and white colobus nor the white-thighed black and white colobus were found in any of the protected areas, though a group of the white-thighed monkeys were found near a village, outside of a protected area. And the critically endangered Miss Waldron’s red colobus monkey was never observed anywhere. Since this species hasn’t had an official sighting since 1978, the researchers suspect it is now extinct.

The Roloway monkey and the white-naped mangabey may have to transition from endangered to critically so, since they were seen in only two reserves. The researchers think that the Roloway monkey might be the next in line for extinction.

Still, the researchers point out that there are ways to support biodiversity while still allowing for the production of cash crops, like cocoa. In Brazil, for example, a practice called cabruca is used to grow cocoa in shade plantations, which works just like shade coffee farming. Tall trees are preserved and cocoa is grown in the understory. In many cases, farmers still reap comparable revenues from shade farms, and primates can still use the habitats on which they rely. In Brazil, the golden-headed lion tamarin is not only able to survive, but can thrive in that sort of agroforest.

The researchers recommend that farming within protected areas be stopped and that efforts focus on reclaiming those forests, and that shade-cocoa farming be applied to remaining forest fragments outside of protected areas. At present, there is little in the way of empirical information to know how West African primates might respond to shade-grown cocoa farms, but the encouraging findings from South America underscore the fact that agriculture and primates are not mutually exclusive. – Jason G. Goldman | 01 April 2015

Source: E. Anderson Bitty, Sery Gonedele Bi, Jean-Claude Koffi Bene, Philippe K. Kouassi, & W. Scott McGraw. (2015). Cocoa farming inside Côte d’Ivoire’s protected areas is accelerating primate extirpation. Tropical Conservation Science 8(1): 95-113. ISSN: 1940-0829. (Open access.)

Header image: Study co-author Gonedele Sere, on left, holds a cocoa plant found at an illegal farm in the Dassioko Forest Reserve in Ivory Coast. Photo by W. Scott McGraw, courtesy of Ohio State University.