Great apes sliding headlong towards extinction

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The Independent Online

Man's closest relatives, the great apes, are on a headlong slide to extinction and the world must act to save them, a coalition of animal conservation groups said yesterday.

Man's closest relatives, the great apes, are on a headlong slide to extinction and the world must act to save them, a coalition of animal conservation groups said yesterday.

Gorillas, orang-utans, chimpanzees and bonobos - or pigmy chimpanzees - will be gone in 20 years or less if present trends of habitat destruction and hunting continue, they said. At most, there may be small, highly protected enclaves of a few animals remaining.

Under the banner of the Ape Alliance, 34 groups ranging from Friends of the Earth and Fauna and Flora International to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund called for Western governments to intervene by helping African and Asian countries to enforce their own wildlife laws. These are being disregarded on an almost universal scale with illegal logging, hunting and invasion of national parks.

Making their plea at a conference in Westminster, they said Britain should take a lead in increasing conservation funding to poor countries, rigorously assessing aid projects to make sure they do not harm wildlife, phasing out the import of tropical timber that has not been harvested in an environmentally friendly manner and encouraging other countries to adopt similar strategies.

The Tory MP Roger Gale, speaking for the all-party animal welfare group, said what was happening was "a catalogue of genocide by multinational consent".

Ian Redmond, chairman of the Ape Alliance, said: "It is crunch time for the great apes.Their populations are being fragmented and wiped out and, apart from a few dedicated individuals, it seems to be going unnoticed by most people."

The world's leading experts on the individual species then offered up a litany of destruction. Dr Jo Thompson, of the Lukuru Wildlife Research Project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), said about the bonobo: "This is the species we are apt to lose first. The entire population of the animal, which is our closest living relative sharing 98.4 per cent of our DNA, is confined to one limited area of the DRC.

"There are very small numbers and the population is fragmented and its entire existence depends on one country which is at war. This species is in tremendous peril and if we don't do something today it will be gone in a few years."

Dr Birute Galdikas, the world expert on orang-utans, told an even more remarkable story of habitat loss in the animals' Indonesian forest home.

"In the last few years several million hectares of primary forest have been converted to palm oil estates, and every single national park has been invaded by illegal loggers and massively logged," she said.

"Twenty years ago the Indonesian government decided it wanted to be the world's leading producer and exporter of plywood and it succeeded. There are vast tracks of tropical rainforest being cut down as timber resources which now go to China, Europe and the US. Unfortunately the orang-utan lives in forests. Unless things change the orang-utan will be extinct within five to ten years."

Dr Trinto Mugangu, adviser to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, said gorillas were facing similar problems of habitat loss and hunting made worse by war. Numbers were falling so low that even if populations revived the gene pool would be too small to be healthy.

Dr Jane Goodall, who for 40 years has studied chimpanzees at Gombe on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, painted a similar picture. Although the chimpanzee was the most adaptable of the great apes, living in open country as well as deep forest, its numbers had gone from nearly 2 million 100 years ago to fewer than 200,000 today and it was rapidly declining.

"Chimpanzees lived in what was Africa's great equatorial forest belt, but it's not a belt anymore, just pockets of shrinking forest areas," she said. The animals suffered from human population pressure, from the world animal trade, from being caught in snares set for other animals, but most of all from hunting for bushmeat - the increasingly popular and commercialised marketing of wild animal flesh.

Hunters now drove up logging trails shooting everything they saw, from birds and bats to elephants, she said. "If things carry on at the present rate in 15 years there will be very, very few chimpanzees left."