UN Launches Campaign to Save Last Great Apes in the Wild

by Reggie Royston
National Geographic News
May 21, 2001

Conservationists led by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) have launched a global effort to save the great apes from extinction in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.

The Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP) targets 23 areas where gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos, and other primates are near extinction as a result of war, habitat destruction, and poaching for trophies, souvenirs, and meat.

The group estimates that in five to ten years, some of these primates will be extinct across most of their range.

"The clock is standing at one minute to midnight for the great apes," said Klaus Toepfer, the executive director of UNEP. "Local extinctions are happening rapidly. Each one is a loss to humanity, a loss to a local community, and a hole torn in the ecology of our planet."

Under-Funded Protection

While governments in countries such as Congo and Nigeria have reserved vast tracts of forest where apes and other primates live, political instability and economic constraints have made policing the large regions difficult. As a result, illegal poaching and human harvesting of the apes' food sources have made serious inroads into the apes' habitats.

In the Cross River region of Nigeria, UNEP estimates that only 150 gorillas are left, making them the most critically endangered apes in the world. Other populations such as the eastern lowland gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega Park, Congo, have seen their numbers halved in recent years to between 110 and 130.

"During this year, thousands more orangutans have been killed or driven from their forests by illegal loggers. Thousands more gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos have been killed for bushmeat to feed miners, loggers, or the insatiable urban markets," said Ian Redmond of the Ape Alliance, based in Bristol, England.

Threats to great ape habitats include over-logging of the forests, encroaching agriculture, hunting, and wild fires as a result of farmland clearance. Redmond said groups such as the Nigerian Cross River State Forestry Commission have attempted to stave off illegal use of the land, but there has been little support for their efforts.

"Thousands of rangers and wardens have lacked the means to do their job to protect even those apes living in national parks," Redmond said.

GRASP plans to mirror initiatives such as the Orangutan Foundation's Environmental Monitoring Program in Tanjung, Borneo, which employs local people to patrol designated areas, monitor illegal activities, and negotiate with illegal gold miners and loggers. The group is also proposing programs that would give rangers and game wardens state-of-the-art communications equipment and vehicles.

While UNEP will be putting up U.S. $150,000 to start the GRASP campaign, officials say more than U.S. $1 million will be needed for the initiative. It includes a community ranger program to apprehend offenders within wildlife sanctuaries, developing fire management strategies and school education schemes, and a gorilla monitoring program.

Organizers are also pushing for support from businesses and industry groups, especially the mobile phone, aircraft, and semi-conductor industries, which benefit from minerals such as tantalite and coltan that are mined in the forests.

Continued on Next Page >>


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