Humankind's closest living relatives on the brink of extinction

Posted: 26 November 2003

Twenty five million dollars is urgently needed to avert the threat of imminent extinction of humankind's closest living relatives, the great apes, warns the UN.

Every one of the great ape species is at high risk of extinction, either in the immediate future or at best within 50 years, says the UN.

Mugaruku, young silverback lowland gorilla eating vine. Credit: Ian Redmond/UNESCO
Mugaruku, young silverback lowland gorilla eating vine. Credit: Ian Redmond/UNESCO
Ndatwa, a blackback mountain gorilla playing with a vine in the Parc des Volcans, Rwanda.© Ian Redmond/UNESCO

The money will be used for reducing the risk of extinction of the world’s remaining gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans, and for establishing areas where ape populations could stabilise or even grow.

The appeal was jointly launched by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) at a meeting in Paris to develop a Global Great Ape Conservation Strategy - a survival plan for the great apes. Experts and governmental representatives from 23 great ape home "range states" in Africa and southeast Asia, as well as possible donors, have been invited to attend the meeting.

Common origins

“$25 million is the bare minimum we need, the equivalent of providing a dying man with bread and water,” said Klaus Toepfer, UNEP Executive Director. “The clock is standing at one minute to midnight for the great apes, animals that share more than 96 percent of their DNA with humans. If we lose any great ape species we will be destroying a bridge to our own origins, and with it part of our own humanity,” he said.

“Great apes form a unique bridge to the natural world,” said Koïchiro Matsuura, UNESCO Director-General. “The forests they inhabit are a vital resource for humans everywhere, and for local people in particular a key source of food, water, medicine as well as a place of spiritual, cultural and economic value. Saving the great apes and the ecosystems they inhabit is not just a conservation issue but a key action in the fight against poverty.”

Human impact

According to Samy Mankoto, a UNESCO export on biosphere reserves in Africa, the western chimpanzee has already disappeared from Benin, the Gambia and Togo.

UNEP and UNESCO, co-ordinators of the Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP), fear that if urgent action is not taken extinction could take place in Senegal, where a mere 200 to 400 wild chimpanzees remain.

Other countries where the fate of the western chimpanzee hangs in the balance include Ghana, which has just 300 to 500 left, and Guinea Bissau where the population is down to less than 200 individual animals.

Poaching patrol, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda© Ian Redmond/UNESCO
Poaching patrol, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda© Ian Redmond/UNESCO
Poaching patrol, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda© Ian Redmond/UNESCO

Human activities are to blame for the dwindling populations of great ape species. Growing human populations encroaching on their habitat, civil wars, poaching for meat, the live animal trade, and above all, the destruction of forests are increasingly taking their toll.

According to a recent UNEP report, The Great Apes – the road ahead, less than 10 per cent of the remaining forest habitat of the great apes of Africa will be left relatively undisturbed by 2030 if road building, construction of mining camps and other infrastructure developments continue at current levels.

Orangutan with baby. Photo credit: Sumatran Orangutan Society
Orangutan with baby. Photo credit: Sumatran Orangutan Society
Orangutan with baby© Sumatran Orangutan Society

Findings for the orangutans of South East Asia appear even bleaker. The report indicates that in 28 years time there will be almost no habitat left that can be considered “relatively undisturbed”.

Monitoring the apes

Since many great ape populations live in extremely remote areas, which are difficult to map, let alone monitor, UNESCO is working with the European Space Agency to use satellites or remote sensing to better monitor the rate of habitat destruction. The project has begun by mapping the habitats of the mountain gorilla. Only about 600 are alive in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The project will also compare satellite image archives to assess changes in gorilla habitats since 1992 in the Virunga National Park (DRC) and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Uganda).

UNESCO is also working with local rangers on improving law enforcement and monitoring in all five of the DRC’s World Heritage Sites, which are home to several great ape species.

But says Samy Mankoto, “law enforcement is an essential but single element in any conservation effort. We cannot just put up fences to try and separate the apes from people.

“Great apes play a key role in maintaining the health and diversity of tropical forests, which people depend upon. They disperse seeds throughout the forests, for example, and create light gaps in the forest canopy which allow seedlings to grow and replenish the ecosystem.”

The meeting in Paris will also prepare for an inter-governmental ministerial meeting on Great apes and GRASP to be held in late 2004.

Our closest relatives in danger

GorillaLowland and mountain gorillas range through nine African countries. There are no reliable figures - but one estimate suggests 80%to 90% of the population may have been lost in just five years, as new roads have opened up inaccessible forest to poachers, loggers and bushmeat hunters.

ChimpanzeeTwo species, Pan troglodytes and Pan paniscus (the bonobo or pigmy chimpanzee) range through 21 African countries. There could be 105,000 Pan troglodytes, and fewer than 20,000 bonobos left. Chimpanzee DNA is so close to human DNA that one scientist has proposed that they should be reclassified as genus Homo.

Orang-utanPongo pygmaeus, found in Sumatra, Borneo and Sarawak. Total numbers are unknown - but the species is at "extremely high risk" of extinction in Sumatra where a population put at 6,000 three years ago has been falling by 1,000 a year. It is also endangered in Borneo. Greatest threats: logging and forest fire.

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