by Danielle Knight
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
scientific breakthrough in AIDS
research, linking the virus to an endangered chimpanzee found in
west-central Africa, has sparked calls by scientists and
environmentalists for an end to poaching of the animal and logging
of its disappearing rainforest habitat.
An international team of AIDS researchers announced in Chicago Feb. 1 that chimpanzees held the solution to the riddle of the origin on the AIDS virus, perhaps bringing researchers closer to finding a cure or vaccine. But, scientists and environmentalists immediately worried that, if the chimpanzee and its habitat was not preserved, the opportunity for discovering such a cure to the deadly disease may slip out of reach.
"Without immediate preservation, a cure for AIDS may be lost forever," warned Kelly Quirke, executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, a California- based group.
international research team of scientists from the United
States, Britain and France said it traced the roots of HIV-1, the
type of AIDS virus that has caused the majority of cases in the
world, to a related virus in a subspecies of endangered
chimpanzees in Cameroon, Congo and Gabon. The natural habitat of
the chimpanzee also is the same area of west and central Africa
where HIV-1 was first identified, said the researchers.
Researchers said that the Aquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was first transmitted to humans -- through either bites or exposure to blood in hunting the chimpanzees. The visus had now spread among humans to infect an estimated 30 million people worldwide.
Because the subspecies -- known as Pan troglodytes troglodytes -- was able to live with the virus without falling ill, scientists may be able to obtain important clues to develop vaccines, treatments, and maybe even a cure for AIDS by studying the animal, said Beatrice H. Hahn, the head of the research team, of the University of Alabama.
"The chimpanzee, which has served as the source of HIV-1, quite possibly holds the clues to its successful control," Hahn told reporters at the sixth annual Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, where the scientific breakthrough was announced.
Scientists had long suspected that HIV-1 came from monkeys but they had been unable to identify the exact subspecies. Now, researchers were gearing up to figure out why HIV-1 was lethal for humans while chimpanzees, genetically similar to humans, remained unaffected.
The enthusiasm of scientists on the findings has been mixed with feelings of anxiety, however, because the chimp subspecies is being slaughtered to "the brink of extinction" in its natural rainforest habitat in Gabon and Cameroon, according to Hahn.
She and the California-based Rainforest Action Network were now leading efforts to publicize how the chimpanzee's extinction could seriously jeopardize hopes for advancing the search for AIDS treatments, vaccines, and cures.
While humans have long hunted chimpanzees for food, increased logging activities in Cameroon and Gabon had provided "unprecedented" access to remote forest regions and have led to the killing of thousands of chimpanzees, gorillas and other monkey species for human consumption, said the group.
destroying the chimp's habitat, European logging
companies -- seeking rare woods such as ebony and okoume -- had
opened up the previously pristine forest to hunters and poachers.
Because of this access into remote areas, people who once hunted to feed themselves now slaughtered chimpanzees and other primates in the trade in "bushmeat" that is conducted over the new logging roads.
"International logging industries give access to remote old- growth rainforest regions that have never been opened before," said Erick Brownstein, a campaigner with the environmental group. "There logging trucks then carry the meat to logging camps and city markets."
Besides endangering chimpanzees, increased hunting of the animal may also be putting people at risk of continuing cross- species transmission of known and unknown viruses, warned Hahn.
Environmental groups in the area said regional governments were allowing more and more logging in this oil-rich region as the slump in oil prices has reduced the country's revenues.
The onslaught of logging companies in Africa was gathering speed, environmentalists said. Proportionally, Africa already had lost twice as much of its original forest as South America, and a third more than Asia, according to Lois Barber, the international coordinator of a Massachusetts-based chapter of the international environmental network, Earth Action.
The future of the chimpanzee was not the only concern, said environmentalists. While animal species such as gorillas and elephants are extinct or endangered elsewhere on the continent, Gabon's rainforests rank alongside those of the Amazon as some of the most biologically diverse in the world. Over 20 percent of the species so far discovered in Gabon's forests are found nowhere else on earth, said Brownstein.
Even though governments have established protected reserves in the region, illegal poaching and logging is still common in these areas because these parks have a inadequate staff and budget, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
In calling for more protected reserves, the Rainforest Action Network, also wanted an immediate end to commercial logging in old growth areas. The group urged consumers in Europe and the United States to make sure that the wood and wood products they purchase do not come from old growth forests.
Governments, such as the United States, seeking to establish trade agreements with Africa should also make sure such arrangements ensure the protection of the region's forests and wildlife, said Brownstein.
March 1, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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