Business, Industry Asked to Help Save Vanishing Great Apes

NAIROBI, Kenya, May 22, 2001 (ENS) - The world's great apes are teetering on the brink of extinction as a result of war, habitat destruction, capturing of live infants for sale and poaching for trophies, souvenirs and their meat.

Gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans - all are disappearing from the Earth. Just 100 years ago, for instance, there were more than one million wild chimpanzees in Africa, but at current rates of decline they could be extinct by 2010 or 2020.

Today, a major international project to save the great apes from extinction is being launched by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) with a startup fund of US$150,000. At least one million dollars will be needed to really make survival possible for the great apes, UNEP scientists say.

The new initiative, called the Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP), will target key areas in Africa and South East Asia in a way that Klaus Toepfer, the executive director of UNEP, hopes will involve industry and business.

"A global effort is now needed to combat this disaster," Toepfer said today. "The clock is standing at one minute to midnight for the great apes. 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 a 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 percent of the DNA found in humans, die out."

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Orangutans caught by people hug one another while in custody of conservation officials at Palangkaraya, Kalimantan, Indonesia (Photo courtesy WWF-Canon/Tantyo Bangun)
While acknowledging the dedicated work of conservation groups, Toepfer called on industry and business to back the great apes initiative with funding and support.

"We are working with wildlife groups and non-governmental organizations, several of whom have been battling for years to stem the demise of the gorilla, orangutan, chimpanzee and bonobos. But this needs to be a global effort with many partners. Goodwill is not enough. The urgency of the situation demands a higher level of action."

One of the first projects on UNEP's priority list is help for the Cross River gorillas of the Afi Mountains in Nigeria. UNEP estimates that only around 150 individuals are left, making the Cross River gorillas the most critically endangered in the world. A recent analysis has found these Nigerian gorillas to be more distinctive than previously described.

Threats include over-logging of their forest home, encroaching agriculture, hunting, and wild fires as a result of farmland clearance. Efforts have been made to tackle the threats to the Cross River gorillas by groups including Pandrillus, the Nigerian Cross River State Forestry Commission, and Fauna and Flora International.

Research indicates that a range of urgent actions are needed including a community ranger program to prosecute offenders within the wildlife sanctuary, the development of fire management strategies, school education programs, and gorilla monitoring.

Robert Hepworth, deputy director of UNEP's Division of Environmental Conventions and a biodiversity expert, said, "To get the project really up and running will require well over US$1 million. But the world has a special duty to save the Great Apes and by saving them we will be also saving a whole raft of animal and plant species who exist in their remaining habitats."

Ian Redmond, chairman of the Ape Alliance, a coalition of more than 40 conservation organizations, said, "During this year, thousands more orangutans have been killed or driven from their forests by illegal loggers, thousands more African apes have been killed for bushmeat to feed miners, loggers or the insatiable urban markets, and thousands of rangers and wardens have lacked the means to do their job to protect even those apes living in national parks.

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Eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graurei). (Photo courtesy IUCN-World Conservation Union)
New threats are also emerging. "In the Democratic Republic of Congo miners seeking the highly prized mineral colomo-tantalite or coltan have been pouring into the Kahuzi-Biega National Park and Okapi Wildlife Reserve which are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The mineral is used in mobile phones, aircraft engines and micro-chips."

Holly Dublin, senior conservation officer for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said, "While field political instability remains a threat to mountain gorillas and other Great Apes in Africa, it has been possible to maintain these populations through local, regional and international support and collaboration."

Redmond said, "UNEP's leadership offers the chance for governments, nongovernmental organizations and individuals to act decisively and together, now, to reverse this decline - not only for the apes' sake, but for the sake of their human neighbors who benefit from their presence."

GRASP, which will be working with Ape Alliance groups including the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Born Free Foundation, Fauna and Flora International, the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force and WWF, has initially identified five potential programmes in need of urgent support. It is planned to extend the initiative to all of the 23 countries that still have great apes.

In some cases, projects will include giving rangers and wardens state of the art communications equipment and vehicles.

In some places wildlife corridors linking fragmented habitats and isolated populations are needed. Educating local people on the value of great apes for eco-tourism and for protecting forests will also play a key role.

Heather Eves, director of the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force said, "Where great ape tourism has been developed, for instance in Uganda's Bwindi and Kibale Forest National Parks, they have become to local communities an important source of revenue worth more alive than dead. Meanwhile, 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. Along with elephants they are the gardeners of the African and south East Asian forests."

Ivory Coast

Slash and burn agriculture is one of the threats to the chimpanzees in the Cote D'Ivoire's Marahoue National Park (Photo by Flavia Castro (c) Conservation International )
The Cote D'Ivoire, which has seven National Parks with chimpanzees including Tai, Banco, Marahoue and Mont Nimba, contains the largest population of chimps in West Africa but most live in fragmented and dispersed populations that have limited prospect of long term survival.

A conservation action plan for each of the key sites is proposed which would include improving protection for the remaining chimpanzees, evaluating tree planting schemes to improve their habitat, training people from local communities to monitor given sections of the park and the establishment of education centers where adults and children are encouraged to actively participate in conservation.

Orangutans in Indonesia's Tanjung Puting National Park, are in grave danger of extinction with viable populations lost in as little as 10 years. Their rainforests are being converted to agriculture, including palm oil plantations, and more recently are threatened by illegal logging and gold mining in protected areas.

The Tanjung Puting Park is in the province of Central Kalimantan on the south coast of Borneo. The Orangutan Foundation's Environmental Monitoring Program employs local people on foot and in boats to patrol designated areas to monitor illegal activities and negotiate with illegal gold miners and loggers.

UNEP believes that there is potential for eco-tourism in Tanjung Puting Park and would like to assist the park authorities in the design of an eco-tourism development program allied to more organized enforcement.

Hepworth said it is vital to galvanize all sections of the United Nations in the effort as well as governments and the corporate sector. The Environmental Management Group, recently launched by the United Nations, should tackle the issue, he said.

"The World Health Organization should have an interest in the fate of the great apes because of their importance along with primates generally in medical research for the study of the natural history of disease. Some scientists believe that AIDS may have been spread to humans through the eating of bushmeat. Who knows what other deadly diseases may be transmitted to humans if we continue to exploit the great apes for food at current rates," said Hepworth.

Other United Nations bodies with a potential interest include United Nations Development Programme in areas such as of eco-tourism and the Food and Agricultural Organization because of its interest in food.