Great ape plight laid out in atlas

Great apes are doomed to extinction unless conservation efforts in the countries where they are found can be linked with programmes to address human poverty.

Orphaned chimps: whole troupes are slaughtered to capture a single baby to sell to well-meaning Westerners

Orphaned chimps: whole troupes are slaughtered to capture a single baby to sell to well-meaning Westerners

This is the central message of the World Atlas of Great Apes released by the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Programme (WCMP).

As well as detailed maps outlining global populations of great apes, the atlas contains valuable information on their prospects for the future, threats they face and how these might be addressed.

Launching the atlas TV presenter Dr Charlotte Uhlenbroek said: "We have relatives very close to us yet we are presiding over their extinction.

"I've been asked whether we can justify trying to protect wildlife when there's so much human suffering on the planet but the two are actually not exclusive." Klaus Toepfer, executive director of UNEP, said the world's apes faced extinction from five broad directions.

Poverty in the host nations, the growing bushmeat crisis, disease, the destruction of fragile habitats and equally importantly the fragmentation of habitats into isolated pockets are all taking their toll on the dwindling ape populations.

"The findings in this atlas are speaking a very clear language," said Toepfer.

"If nothing happens there's a very great probability the great apes will go out of this world."

He said that while prospects did not look good for the apes it was not an impossible task to save them.

But many of the 23 countries that still host native populations of apes are among the poorest in the world and it is difficult to convince someone to stop logging or using the forest as a larder when their survival depends on it. The trick would be, said Toepfer, finding a way to balance the environmental and human development strategies.

"If we can't integrate the conservation programme with the needs of the people who live there it will be very difficult," he said.

Harvard professor Dr Mark Leighton, chair of the international Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP), presented a list of just over 100 sites with viable populations that would be the bare minimum needed to save all the sub species still living in the wild.

If conservation efforts were focused on these sites, the apes had a chance, he said but some were unlikely to survive the ravages of climate change, war and other environmental disasters.

"Some of these populations are going to go extinct despite our best efforts," he said.

"There are other viable populations we did not include on the list because they were not considered as important scientifically, but if we lose a site it might be possible to replace it with another."

In some cases, the conservation crisis could be solved with nothing more than hard cash.

Dr Ian Singleton, scientific director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, said that if he had US$20 million he could simply approach the owner of a vast palm oil plantation, and let the rainforest back in to provide habitat for the primates.

"But these are multi-million dollar estates and were still trying to do conservation with US$1,000 here and US$10,000 there," he said.

In other areas the success of conservation efforts will need even more than a boost to funds.

In parts of Africa where chimps and gorillas are slaughtered for the table efforts need to be made to build on religious and cultural taboos against eating ape meat and persuade hunters to not to target the animals, which make up just a tiny fraction of their catch.

Deforestation will always continue but conservationists must try to persuade loggers to work as sustainably as possible to give ape populations a better chance.

Eco-tourism and the income it generates might also help persuade locals that a live ape is more valuable than a dead one, but as most apes are forest-dwellers they will never be as easy to spot as the wildlife on the savannah or coral reef and will thus never have the same potential as an attraction.

While there are high hurdles to clear, conservationists are nevertheless optimistic that the apes can be saved, but only if we act now.

Next week Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, will play host to an Intergovernmental Meeting on Great Apes where conservationists hope to persuade policy makers of the importance of protecting our nearest relatives.

The outcome of the meeting could decide the fate of the planet for the apes.

By Sam Bond


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