Poverty is destroying the Great Apes, says UN atlas

Posted: 1 September 2005

Fewer than 250 wild Sumatran orang-utans may exist in fifty years, their habitat is disappearing and the devastation of the Asian tsunami has accelerated the rate of destruction according to WorldAtlas of Great Apes and their Conservation, published today.

Bornean orangutans at Wanariset Rehabilitation Center, Indonesia. Photo: Rondang Siregar
Bornean orangutans at Wanariset Rehabilitation Center, Indonesia. Photo: Rondang Siregar
Bornean orangutans at Wanariset Rehabilitation Center, Indonesia: Roslian,Victor, Gauri, Putni and others (left to right)© Rondang Siregar

Edited by the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, the Atlas says that it is not just humans that will benefit from a campaign to ‘make poverty history’.For the other six species of great ape – the eastern and western gorilla, chimpanzee, bonobo, Sumatran and Bornean orang-utan – it could literally save them from the cooking pot.

The first World Atlas of Great Apes and their Conservation provides a country-by-country assessment of the 23 range states hosting the wild great apes. These countries are among the poorest in the world, so concertedinternational action is required if these species are to survive.

The atlas claims to is ‘the most comprehensive compendium of information about great apes ever compiled’. It brings together the latest research and observations from scientists throughout the world and includes contributions from Kofi Annan, Jane Goodall, Richard Leakey, Toshisada Nishida, Russ Mittermeier and Ian Redmond. The book includes conservation status assessments at a species and country view level, and it details the great apes’ biology, behaviour and culture.

Juvenile western lowland gorillas in Lefini, Congo. Photo: Ian Redmond
Juvenile western lowland gorillas in Lefini, Congo. Photo: Ian Redmond
Juvenile western lowland gorillas in Lefini, Congo© Ian Redmond
Information from the atlas will be used to focus international attention for an eleventh hour conservation effort aimed at saving humankind'sclosest living relatives from extinction. It says that if current trends continue, by 2032: 99 per cent of the orang-utan range will suffer medium to high impacts from human development, as will 90 per cent of the gorilla range, 92 per cent of chimpanzee range and 96 per cent of bonobo range.

Bushmeat business

The atlas also provides population estimates for the apes and reveals that their survival is threatened by numerous pressures:

  • Poverty of host countries – 16 out of the 23 great range states have a per capita income of less than US $800.

  • Growing bushmeat crisis - The atlas raises concerns over the increasing trade in great ape bushmeat, and the sale of orphans to expatriates wanting to 'rescue them'. Entire groups of adults may be killed to capture oneorphan for sale. In Central Africa, a single chimpanzee or gorilla carcass can fetch the equivalent of US$20-25.

  • Fragile habitats - The atlas maps the impact of infrastructure development on wildlife, and predicts that if current trends in Indonesia and Malaysia persist, the orang-utan will lose nearly half of its habitat in the next 5 years while a quarter of the bonobo’s range in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is already under logging concessions.

  • Habitat fragmentation - The atlas presents new information on the distribution of the Cross River gorilla, one of the two subspecies ofwestern gorilla, which has only around 250 to 280 individuals left. These few animals are distributed amongst more than ten fragmented highland areas. Fragmentation isolates great ape populations from one another,increasing their vulnerability.

  • Disease - It is also increasingly clear that disease, especially Ebola haemorrhagic fever, is playing a part in the decline of ape populations and new research is needed, along with stronger efforts to limit disease transmission.

    Invaluable forests

    Launching the atlas at the London Zoological Society , Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said, “We have a duty to rescue our closest living relatives as part of our wider responsibilities to conserve the ecosystems they inhabit.

    “You only have to look at the tropical forests, home to the great apes. Economists now calculate that they are worth $60 billion a year as a result of their ability to remove and store global warming gases from the atmosphere alone.

    “Along with other ecosystems, such forests are also invaluable sources of genetic material. These are forming the basis of a new industrialrevolution in areas from food and agriculture to pharmaceuticals and chemicals. It is a moral issue of the highest importance. By conserving the habitats of the great apes, we are helping to overcome poverty and to conserve the natural wealth upon which current and future human generations depend. It seems a small price to pay,” he added.

    Mr Toepfer said he hoped the new atlas and the upcoming inter-governmental meeting in Kinshasa would trigger even greater action by identifying conservation priorities and by generating investment from donor governments and the private sector in the great ape range states.

    Related links:For more information, see: World Atlas of Great ApesTo order the Atlas, see: Earthprint and The University of California Press
    Great Apes Survival ProjectUnited Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring CentreIntergovernmental Meeting on Great Apes and First GRASP Council MeetingThe 'Great Apes - The Road Ahead' (2002)For more features/news on the Great Apes, see our site on Biodiversity