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Africa's Race To Save The Great Apes From Extinction

by Katy Salmon

Should Apes Have Human Rights?
(IPS) NAIROBI -- The closest relatives to humankind, the great apes, could be extinct in five to 10 years if nothing is done to stop the destruction of their habitat and their slaughter for meat.

"Unless we act very quickly, we are going to end up with tiny pockets of small numbers of apes, ring-fenced by people with machine guns trying to protect them. We are going to have unhealthy populations where inbreeding could lead to their final demise," warns Nick Nuttall of the Nairobi-based UN Environment Program (UNEP).

UNEP has launched a campaign to save the great apes. Its executive director Klaus Toepfer says: "The clock is standing at one minute to midnight for the great apes."

"The time has come for a global coordinated action that brings all the parties together and really focuses in on trying to save the great apes that are left and then in turn boost the numbers back to an acceptable level," says Nuttall.

Great apes include gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and bonobos, which are pygmy chimps. There are an estimated 100,000 gorillas, 15,000 bonobos and 15,000 orangutans (found only in Asia) left. At the turn of the century, there were some one million wild chimps in Africa. Now just 150,000 remain.

Mountain gorillas -- the world's largest ape, found in east and central Africa -- are down to 320 individuals. Their population has nearly halved in the last 10 years. Nigeria is home to possibly the rarest gorilla in world -- Cross River gorillas. Only 150 animals are left.

Firms involved in timber cutting also drive the apes out of forest. "Logging companies are building roads which provide access deep within the forests," says Annette Langouw of the African Wildlife Federation. "Then people come in and start poaching wildlife in the remaining forest."

The development of a commercial bush-meat industry has led to widespread slaughter of apes. "In some areas, apes are considered very good food and there's a real preference for bush meat," says Langouw. "Some people believe that it is better for you, healthier, that it makes you strong."

Langouw says people living around the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) particularly like eating gorilla and chimpanzee. In DRC, the bush meat trade is being fuelled by war and instability.

Recently, large numbers of miners have started going into the last areas of forest to mine for precious metals. In the process, they also gather large amounts of ape meat. "It is putting huge pressures on those last fragile populations," says Nuttall.

about first primate extinction in the 20th century
Bush meat hunting has always taken place. Previously, it was for personal use. With the new roads, it has become a lucrative business. "What's causing the damage is not that they are eating bush meat, but that it's being done on a scale which is not sustainable," says Langouw.

If the great apes become extinct, it would not just be a tragic loss for our planet's biodiversity. As humankind's closest relatives, with a similar genetic, anatomical and physiological make-up, apes are uniquely valuable subjects for scientific study. Humans and apes share up to 98 percent of their DNA.

"There's a lot we can learn from them to understand ourselves better," says Langouw.

Apes are of particular importance to humans in terms of understanding disease transmission. For example, a lot of people believe that AIDS entered the human population by eating bush meat. "If this level of bush meat is being eaten now, who knows what other diseases could penetrate into the human population and cause misery and death to thousands if not millions?" asks Nuttall.

It will take $1 million to fund UNEP's Great Ape Survival Project for the first two years. UNEP is providing $150,000 of seed money to get the ball rolling. Some money will be spent on simple things like buying fuel and walkie-talkies for impoverished National Park wardens.

"We really want the private sector-companies, corporations to start putting their hands in their pockets," says Nuttall. "And a million dollars, really, to most large corporations is pretty much peanuts."

Nuttall believes it is important for businesses to develop a sense of corporate responsibility. "In DRC, those miners are after colomo-tantalite or coltan. This is a metal that is used in the production of mobile phones. A lot of people in Europe or the United States don't realize when they are picking up their mobile phone that there is a consequence for the apes back in Africa."

UNEP is working with over 40 environmental groups to coordinate, fundraise and, most importantly, raise awareness. One or two high-profile figures will be chosen as "special ape envoys" to persuade people to draw up action plans. "We're going to go into schools, build awareness among local people and galvanize governments to enforce laws which are already in place," says Nuttall.

For many poor people, the idea of saving species or natural habitat for the future seems an unaffordable luxury. "The challenge is trying to find immediate gains, so that they actually benefit from the apes today," says Langouw.

The African Wildlife Federation are working to develop eco-tourism around wildlife areas in Rwanda and Uganda. "Tourists come and see these beautiful animals in the wild and their money is used to develop livelihoods for people living around these protected areas," explains Langouw.

With a direct economic gain, people realize that the apes are worth more alive than they are dead. "We're trying to give local people a sense of ownership of their apes and see them as an economic imperative for their own existence," says Nuttall.

UNEP want people to understand that by killing apes today, people are destroying their own future. "The apes are very important in the ecosystem. A lot of people rely on the forest for medicines, food and wood. The apes are actually the gardeners of these forests. They disperse the seeds. They allow the regeneration of the forests," says Nuttall.

"If those forests are destroyed, their farming livelihoods will be destroyed as well. It's a longer-term risk when you are faced with feeding your children today. But that link has to be made. We have to show that a healthy environment is to the benefit of people," agrees Langouw.

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Albion Monitor June 4, 2001 (

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