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.

Partners for the project include the Ape Alliance, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Born Free Foundation, Fauna and Flora International, the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force, and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Worth More Alive Than Dead

More than a million wild chimpanzees flourished in Africa at the beginning of the 1900s, but at current rates of decline, they could be extinct by 2010 or 2020. Poaching, forest destruction, the bushmeat trade, and even human-borne disease are taking their toll on the animals.

Côte d'Ivoire, which has seven national parks that are home to chimpanzees, contains the largest population of chimps in West Africa. But most of them live in fragmented and dispersed populations that have limited prospect of long-term survival.

UNEP recommends that wildlife corridors linking fragmented habitats and isolated populations be created to expand sustainable habitats for chimps. Such tracts could then become magnets for tourism.

Citing the important role chimpanzees have in all traditional African mythologies as well as the genuine interest humans have in their fellow primates, UNEP officials are encouraging ecotourism development in threatened regions to counter poaching and other encroaching menaces.

A conservation action plan for each of a series of key ranges for the primates 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 each park, and establishing education centers where adults and children may be encouraged to participate in conservation.

"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," said Heather Eves of the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force.

"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," Eves said. "Along with elephants, they are the gardeners of the African and Southeast Asian forests."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.