Near Total Ape-Habitat Loss Foreseen By 2030

National Geographic News
September 3, 2002
Less than 10 percent of the remaining habitat of the great apes of
Africa will be left relatively undisturbed by 2030 if road building,
mining camps, and other infrastructure developments continue at current
levels, a new report suggests.

The future is even more bleak for the orangutans of Southeast Asia The report indicates that within 30 years there will be almost no habitat left that can be considered "relatively undisturbed."

The findings—announced today at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg—have come from a study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which is coordinating the Great Apes Survival Project partnership (GRASP), and scientists from Norway and the United States.

GRASP is a partnership of UN agencies, ape range and donor states, convention secretariats and conservation non-governmental organizations (NGOs) committed to halting the rapid decline of all the great ape species. Primatologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Jane Goodall is a "special ape envoy" to GRASP.

The study looked in detail at each of the four great ape species—chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla, and orangutan—to assess the current, remaining, habitat deemed relatively undisturbed and thus able to support viable populations of apes. Experts then mapped the likely impact and area of healthy habitat left in 2030 at current levels of infrastructure growth.

The findings are based on a new method of evaluating the wider impacts of infrastructure development on key species. While most studies focus on the actual area of land taken by a new road, mining camp, or infrastructure development, the GLOBIO method (Global Methodology for Mapping Human Impacts on the Biosphere) also factors in the wider impacts such as habitat fragmentation and noise disturbance.

"This report suggests the possible fate of the great apes and their habitats," said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of UNEP. "Roads are being built in the few remaining pristine forests of Africa and Southeast Asia to extract timber, minerals, and oil. Uncontrolled road construction in these areas is fragmenting and destroying the great apes' last homes and making it easier for poachers to slaughter them for meat and their young more vulnerable to capture for the illegal pet trade."

Not Too Late to Save the Apes?

It is not too late to stop uncontrolled exploitation of these forests, Toepfer said. "By doing so, we may save not only the great apes, but thousands of other species.

"Saving the great apes is also about saving people. By conserving the great apes, we will also protect the livelihoods of the many people that rely on forests for food, medicine and clean water. Indeed the fate of the great apes has great symbolic implications for humankind's ability to develop a more sustainable future.

"I call on all nations here, on all sectors of society, to join our Great Apes Survival Project partnership. Without concerted action, without political will, we are all the poorer," he said.

Toepfer said that at the close of the Earth Summit, the world had an agreement to significantly reduce biodiversity loss by 2010. "This is an important agreement. The great apes, our closest living relatives will be the litmus test of whether the world succeeds in this important goal or not."

Robert Hepworth, deputy director of the UNEP Division of Environmental Conventions and a biodiversity expert, unveiled the organization's GRASP strategy document which will build on the work carried out by the wide range of partners since the project was launched in 2001.

The strategy aims to cover all of the two dozen range states of the Great Apes and draw up national recovery action plans in collaboration with the governments concerned, wildlife groups, and local people.

"An international, collaborative effort, has been urgently needed which was why GRASP was born," Hepworth said. "The strategy will guide and assist UNEP and UNESCO and our other partners to target conservation effort, while helping to join and marshal the efforts of other international agencies and conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species as well as governments and civil society. This can only be realistic when local communities have a stake in conservation, when they can reap benefits from sustainably harvesting forests for food, fuel, building materials and medicines or from ecotourism."

Hepworth announced that more funding for the project was being received from the government of the United Kingdom and new money from the United Nations Foundation (UNF) and the wildlife charity International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Other new partners include the Dian Fossey Gorilla Foundation (Europe), the World Conservation Society, the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation, and the Pan African Sanctuaries Alliance, Hepworth said.

UNESCO, a co-partner in the GRASP initiative, is also working with the European Space Agency to image and map ape habitats in the Albertine Valley of Africa's Central Rift region.

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