Great apes put chimps at risk of extinction

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The decline of the world's great ape population has dramatically accelerated and could leave major species extinct within five years, an international study disclosed yesterday.

The decline of the world's great ape population has dramatically accelerated and could leave major species extinct within five years, an international study disclosed yesterday.

A summit of experts from 12 countries, including Britain, has been told that chimpanzees could soon be wiped out and that gorilla and orang-utan numbers are far lower than previously estimated.

The rapid rise in hunting and the destruction of habitat in politically unstable countries in Africa and Asia was pinpointed as a key cause of the decline.

Conservation International, the American research group that has produced the new figures, said 10 per cent of the planet's 608 primate species were now in "critical" danger. Their critical status means that the animals could disappear at any time, according to experts in the field.

Professor John Oates, a primate specialist who is based in New York, said: "We have a crisis of such immense proportions that I don't believe most people realise how bad it is. We have to stop sitting on our hands." One study has said that in 20 years there will be no more chimpanzees. "Well, that is being revised to 10 years, or even five," he said.

Field studies have found that the most endangered species, including chimpanzees, orang-utans and less well-known animals such as the tamirin, could be down to the low thousands or even hundreds. A further 10 per cent of primate species are endangered, which means that they are likely to become extinct in the next 20 years, if there is no intervention.

The most urgent threats are logging, hunting, war and the millions of impoverished refugees who rely on the same forests as the primates for their food, fuel and shelter.

Participants at the primate conference, which is being held in Illinois, United States, were told that war and hunting has put a species of pygmy chimpanzee, found only in the Republic of Congo, on the brink of extinction. The bonobo, which shares 99 per cent of its genetic material with humans and might be the closest living link to our ancestors, now has a population as low as 5,000.

Civil war and hunting have drastically reduced the bonobos' range. Bonobo meat, along with that of chimpazees and gorillas, is known to appear on restaurant menus.

Experts agree that conventional conservation measures - such as establishing national parks - failed in the Nineties.

In Indonesia, orang-utans are disappearing at a rate of more than 1,000 a year, with fewer than 15,000 remaining. Political turmoil has encouraged rampant illegal logging in the orang-utan's native swamp forests on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, as well as the setting alight of huge forest fires and the spread of palm oil plantations.

The orang-utans' habitat shrank by 50 percent in the Nineties, as illegal logging quadrupled, the researchers reported.

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