Great Apes face extinction

Posted: 17 April 2002

The Great Apes, including chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, face extinction in the wild within a decade unless urgent action is taken on their behalf, according to the world's leading primate experts, represented in the Ape Alliance.

"The clock is now standing at one minute to midnight for the Great Apes," said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). UNEP has set up a Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP), but officials estimate they need more than $1 million to get the project up and running.

During the last four decades of the 20th century, scientists gained a greater understanding of apes than ever before. Field researchers entered their world and revealed both their social complexity and their keystone role in the ecology of their habitats.

Captive studies demonstrated that apes possess self-awareness, remarkable intelligence and an ability to communicate with signs and symbols. Geneticists startled the world by announcing that chimpanzees and bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) share 98.4 per cent of our DNA, gorillas 97.7 per cent and orangutans 96.4 per cent.

And yet during the same period, most populations of wild apes declined dramatically. Moreover, the situation is getting worse, not better.

Bonobo (pygmy chimpanzee). Credit: WWF

Habitat loss, forest fires, logging, hunting for bushmeat and the capture of live infants for sale, have all contributed to this decline. Apes are protected by national law in every country they inhabit, but these laws are poorly enforced in most ape range-states. Even in supposedly protected areas, poaching, illegal logging and mining all impact on vulnerable ape populations. International law is also failing to protect apes.

Disappearing forest

A hundred years ago, there were an estimated 2 million chimpanzees in the vast central African rainforest - now there are at most 200,000. Almost all of Africa's rainforest, home to the last gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos, is earmarked for logging. Although it amounts to less than 20 per cent of the original forest belt, it remains the world's second biggest tropical forest. Cameroon and Gabon will soon be logged out.

Asia's only ape, the orang-utan, is in deep trouble. Its last remaining strongholds in the rainforests of Sumatra (Indonesia) and the island of Borneo (Indonesia and Malaysia) are being destroyed by illegal logging, a proliferation of oil palm plantations, and by widespread forest fires, many set by plantation owners.

All non-human apes are listed on Appendix I of CITES, which bans international trade for primarily commercial purposes, but the high monetary value which some people attach to captive apes acts as a constant lure to illegal traders and hunters.

The illegal commercial bushmeat trade - a proportion of which involves ape meat - continues largely unchecked within and between neighbouring countries in Africa. Finally, war, civil unrest and a breakdown in law and order have exacerbated the existing problems in several African countries and Indonesia.

Glimmers of hope

But there are glimmers of hope, according to Ian Redmond, Chairman of the Ape Alliance. Where ape-tourism has been developed, as with mountain gorillas and some populations of chimpanzees, apes are seen as an important economic resource that can improve the lives of neighbouring human communities. Some timber companies are talking of adopting a Code of Conduct, which would reduce the impact of their activities on wildlife.

The United States is currently considering a Great Ape Conservation Act, which would fund some of the initiatives needed. And the newly formed CITES Bushmeat Working Group may soon begin to bring the international component of the illegal bushmeat trade under control. But the urgency of the situation demands a higher level of action - it is already too late in many areas, where apes are now extinct.