Published on Monday, May 21, 2001 in the Guardian of London
Last Chance to Save Great Apes from Extinction
Conservationists Launch Desperate Effort to Stop Humanity Killing Closest Relatives
by Tim Radford
|An international push to save the great apes - the gorilla, orang-utan and chimpanzee - from extinction is being launched today by UN chiefs and environmental campaigners.
All three species are in serious danger. The great apes survival project - known as Grasp - will target 23 countries in Africa and south-east Asia where apes survive. Habitats are being disturbed by farmers and miners, and destroyed by loggers, and the apes are being killed for food.
"The clock is standing at one minute to midnight for the great apes," said Klaus Toepfer of the United Nations environmental programme (Unep). "Some experts estimate that in as little as five to 10 years they will be extinct across most of their range.
"Local extinctions are happening rapidly and each one is a loss to humanity, a loss to the local community and a hole torn in the ecology of our planet. We can no longer stand by and watch these wondrous creatures, some of whom share over 98% of the DNA found in humans, die out."
Botanists reckon that up to a third of the flowering plants on the planet could be at risk. Zoologists predict that perhaps a quarter to a half of all animal species could vanish in the next century. Complex creatures have been evolving and going extinct for more than 600m years, but even conservative estimates put modern extinction rates at up to 1,000 times higher than earlier eras.
Decades ago, wildlife groups saw the danger, and tried to preserve the wilderness for the large, glamorous species - the panda, the tiger, the elephant and the apes. The reasoning was that large reserves safe for apes or tigers would also shelter many thousands of other species.
But even in the reserves in China, panda numbers are falling. The big cats of Asia are also declining. A century ago, there were at least a million chimpanzees in Africa. At present rates of decline, they could all have perished by 2010 or 2020. The chimpanzees are humanity's closest relatives, while gorillas and orang-utans are rather more distant cousins. The great zoos of the world have begun to see themselves as "Noah's arks" which will have to keep a population of captive apes alive when all the wild apes have perished.
Ian Redmond, of the Bristol charity Ape Alliance, said: "During this year, thousands more orang-utans have been killed or driven from their forests by illegal loggers, thousands more gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) have been killed for bushmeat to feed miners, loggers or the insatiable urban markets, and wardens have lacked the means to do their job to protect even those apes living in national parks."
One population of eastern lowland gorillas in the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of the Congo is known to have halved to around 110 to 130. One population in the Cross river region of Nigeria is down to about 150. The forest is threatened by loggers, and has already been damaged by wildfire.
Grasp will work with Ape Alliance, the World Wide Fund for Nature and other campaigning groups to extend protected areas, equip wardens and rangers and educate local people in the economic potential, as tourist attractions, of the great apes that live nearby. There is another pay-off for preserving the gorilla.
"Too few people who depend on the forests for fuel, building materials, medicinal plants and food, are aware of the role gorillas play in regenerating woodlands by dispersing seeds and pruning trees," said Heather Eaves of the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force. "Along with elephants, apes are the gardeners of the African and south-east Asian forests."
Unep is launching the campaign with $150,000. Robert Hepworth, a biodiversity expert with Unep, puts the cost of the Grasp programme at $1m.
"But the world has a special duty to save the great apes and by saving them we will also be saving a whole raft of animal and plant species which exist in their remaining habitat," he said.
Endangered: numbers dwindle
Gorillas live for up to 50 years in the wild. There are three subspecies of this gentle, vegetarian giant. The two lowland subspecies are counted in tens of thousands, but mountain gorillas are counted in hundreds. World Conservation Monitoring scientists say there could be no more than 126,000 in all.
The orang-utan has a huge range but is under threat everywhere in its Indonesian home. It lives for about 40 years. Experts say there could be fewer than 20,000 left.
There are two species of chimpanzee. Once thought to be entirely vegetarian, this animal - which shares more than 98% of its DNA with humans - is a sociable omnivore with a lifespan of about 50 years. Numbers are put at between 100,000 and 200,000.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001