He saved the elephant. But can he save the Great Apes?

Richard Leakey transformed world opinion by setting fire to Kenya's ivory stockpile. Now he is turning his attention to an even greater crisis. Michael McCarthy reports
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The Independent Online

The giant panda has served its purpose, says Richard Leakey, the grand old man of African wildlife. We need a new international icon to represent threatened species, and he knows what it should be: an image of the great apes.

The precipitous decline of the gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) and orang-utans is the most urgent of all the world's conservation problems, says the man who 15 years ago highlighted the poaching threat to the elephant by setting fire to a stockpile of ivory in Kenya.

"I'm not suggesting for a moment there are no problems with the panda, or with the elephant," he says. "I just think the great apes problem is far greater. Switching the focus from the panda to the great apes as an icon for threatened, endangered species, would send a very loud and important message to the world."

At 59, Mr Leakey is perhaps the most celebrated of white Africans. A Kenyan politician, civil servant and conservationist, he is a silver-haired Hemingway-like figure who lost both his legs in an air crash in 1993 and who now walks on artificial limbs with no crutches, but a sailor's rolling gait.

The son of the palaeontologist Louis Leakey, who discovered man's oldest fossil remains in the Olduvai gorge of what is now Tanzania, Richard Leakey is a third-generation Kenyan who began in palaeontology himself and achieved eminence, but switched in his middle years to conservation, to achieve more eminence still.

He ran the Kenyan Wildlife Service from 1989 to 1994, taking a tough line with poachers, then left government to found an opposition political party, SAFINA, becoming public enemy number one for the Kenyan president, Daniel arap Moi.

He returned to Moi's government to run the civil service as Secretary to the Cabinet - "I thought I would try to change things from the inside" - before resigning in frustration. But his commitment to wildlife conservation remains undimmed, and now the great apes are his primary focus.

He is in London preparing for a fund-raising dinner a fortnight on Monday, at which he will appeal to the British Government to add the plight of the great apes to its professed concerns for Africa, emphasised this week with the launching of the Commission for Africa by Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Mr Leakey acknowledges Africa's human problems, but believes that the threat to the great apes can no longer be ignored by governments. Over the past decade it has become clear that these species, man's closest relatives, are heading for extinction, because of the inroads being made into their forest habitat by logging and development, and because of the mushrooming of the African bushmeat trade - in which the apes are hunted and sold as food. In Indonesia, orang-utans are further threatened by the pet trade, and by forest fires, sometimes started deliberately to clear land for agriculture.

Some estimates predict they will be gone in 20 years, outside protected enclaves, whose security would be by no means assured. The most threatened is the bonobo - man's closest relative, sharing 98.4 per cent of our DNA - whose population is contained in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and now fragmented, persecuted and decimated by war.

Even chimpanzees, the species with the largest numbers, have suffered a decline, dropping from nearly 2 million 100 years ago to fewer than 200,000 today, and still falling.

The United Nations Environment Program (Unep) has established an initiative to co-ordinate conservation efforts - Grasp, the Great Apes Survival Project - and at the forthcoming London Zoo dinner, Mr Leakey will lead the fund-raising appeal (Grasp is seeking $25m (£13.9m) over three years) and tell Mr Blair that the plight of the gorillas and their cousins needs to be on the West's African agenda alongside the alleviation of poverty, famine, disease and war.

Yesterday Mr Leaky said he realised that many people preoccupied with Africa's human problems might see the threat to wildlife as a side issue - but he felt strongly that this was wrong, and it needed to be tackled.

"There's no question that Africa's people have a plight that bears comparison to no other people in terms of their poverty, disease, and oppression by the growing gap between rich and poor," he said.

"But killing off, or allowing the gorillas and chimpanzees to die, will in no way accelerate the improvement of these people; it will certainly impoverish them in future years in terms of having lost species that are so much a part of the African global heritage. Ignoring wildlife species because of the poverty of people doesn't necessarily help anything."

He said he thought it was accurate to say that the great apes were now in crisis. "There is a very real pressure on their habitats from human population - people want to get closer to where there's still forest, because forest represents fuelwood, and in addition, if you can get it, meat.

"The second pressure is that commercial development, from European companies in particular, is opening up vast swaths of forest for logging. And with this logging, loggers are taking in people to log, they're taking in hunters, and these tracts of impenetrable forest where these apes have survived for several million years are now open to anyone who wants to go in, and they're able to bring out what they shoot.

"Governments of these countries have such limited resources that there isn't money for on-the-ground patrol and protection of wildlife."

He added: "Outside protected areas, there may well be a very limited time-frame for these animals to survive. And I think that is simply because you cannot expect an African country that only has timber to sell, not to sell it, unless there is an alternative that is as lucrative.

"If they're going to continue to clear forests for timber, the great apes and other species living in those forests are doomed, and the question then is, are the protected areas in the right places, with sufficient acreages to ensure that there remains a very healthy genetic population of the species and sub-species of great apes.

"But if you're going to say to country X, 'Don't log', and country X says, 'Yes, but I had $50m promised for that logging concession' - then if we believe saving the chimpanzees is essential, we should offer country X $51m not to log it.

"I think the world must wake up to the fact that poor countries cannot carry the financial burden and arrest their own development, simply because wealthy country citizens feel sentimental."

Mr Leakey said that the questions of how logging concessions might be leased as key wildlife preserves was one that ministers of the rich countries needed to start talking about. "I don't think you can ask an African government to simply say well, because it's so important, we'll take $50m out of our budget this year and keep the land vacant for the gorillas.

"I think we've got to say, it is that important, and it's worth exactly what it's worth to the loggers, and we'll find the money, And I mean, thereis money in the world."

Asked if this could ever be practical, he said: "Well, it's been done in Costa Rica, and it's been done in Britain, hasn't it? Don't you get paid as farmers to not do things on your land, all across Europe?"

Mr Leakey is a genial man, gently spoken despite his large frame, but he is evidently tough-minded, and one area where his views do not accord with orthodox opinion is on the matter of fences.

For 30 years, it has been believed by many conservationists that fences in Africa are useless, because people will simply cross them, and the way to make local people preserve a particular patch of forest and its wildlife, say, is to give them an economic interest in it.

Mr Leakey ventures to disagree. "I'm persuaded that private property, in every country in the world, largely remains private because there's a fence line, and people don't cross it, or they go along access paths, as they do in many parts of England and Europe," he said.

"The discipline a fence line puts in is quite remarkable. We've tried this in Kenya, and where there are fences, even though people can cross them, most people don't, because in doing so they know they've crossed a line. Incidences of poaching inside a park, the incidences of snaring, are greatly reduced wherever you put boundaries that are clearly marked."

He doesn't mean privatisation. "No. Governments fence. And even though I would argue that governments don't own anything, they're custodians for things, there's no reason why the government, as the custodian of a national park, couldn't erect a fence around it to safeguard the people's assets within that fence."

He added: "I think another part of the opposition to fences is that people think that in fencing, you're fragmenting the habitat.

"Everyone remembers with horror what happened when Botswana fenced in southern Africa, and hundreds of thousands of wildbeeste and hartebeeste were killed in the fences.

"But clearly with the great apes, you wouldn't be fencing off migratory routes. What I would say in terms of the fragmentation of the habitat is that it has already happened.

"It's happened over the last 30 years. People have built towns, sugar estates, plantations of bananas, there's war zones, there's churches, there's settlement, and that habitat's gone. All you're doing is putting fences around a de facto fragment. And I think we need to get real - or the fragmentation will continue."

He takes heart from the fact that the precarious population of mountain gorillas - the world-famous silverbacks - in the Virunga reserve on the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo, has increased in recent years, despite several episodes of war.

"The mountain gorillas were left alone, and the population has increased by about 4 per cent during the war years," he said. "This is because rebels and government forces recognised the gorillas as an important asset to a future Rwanda, and went out of their way to secure their safety by insisting that refugees and soldiers alike not tamper with them.

"Given what happened to the poor people, that this should happen in that tumultuous time is a sign that the publicity around the mountain gorillas has worked.

"The gorillas are providing a useful revenue stream to governments, and this could be replicated right across Africa where there are great ape populations." He is encouraged by proposals for wildlife protection parks that may cross the boundaries of several African countries.

His speech at the dinner will aim to secure funding from the corporate sector as well as secure the support of the British Government. He will ask donors to wake up to what is happening - and what Grasp is asking for is not much, he says.

"The amounts of money that are being sought for a swath of Africa, as big as it is, are peanuts compared with the money that is needed for salvaging the destitute people. You could throw that $25m into a food aid programme or any other aid programme across that same range, and it would do no good at all."

He says: "I think one must take the position that the doom and gloom and mayhem that post-independence Africa has seen in this past 40 years can't be a permanent condition.

"With development will come different values - but once you've destroyed a certain set of assets such as gorillas, you've lost the habitat, and they don't come back. Keeping them doesn't cost as great deal of money, but it does require a lot of political influence.

"And I'm arguing, for over the next 20 or 30 years, which is probably the time frame, let's not lose sight of the ball, let's not lose sight of the great apes - because in 20 or 30 years' time we're going to say, 'Where did they go?'."


Approximately 180,000 chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) are thought to be left in a long belt of forest stretching from Uganda to the Atlantic from an original population of perhaps 2m. The four races of the animal are all threatened by hunting and habitat destruction.


Our closest animal relative, sharing 98.4 per cent of our DNA, the bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee may the great ape species we lose first. Numbers are thought to be down to around 10,000 in its forest home in the Congo, recently ravaged by war.


There are three races or sub-species of lowland gorilla; their total numbers are probably now less than 110,000.

The most numerous is the western lowland gorilla,(Gorilla gorilla gorilla) found in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Congo, and Gabon. It may number about 95,000.

The cross river gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli), found in Nigeria and Cameroon, is critically endangered: with numbers of only 150 to 200 it has the lowest population of any of Africa's great apes.

Grauer's gorilla (Gorilla berengei graueri) is found on the eastern side of the Democratic Republic of Congo: there are thought to be about 16,000 left.


Only a few hundred of the mountain gorillas (Gorilla berengei berengei) of the forests of the Virunga volcano region of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are now left, making them one of the world's rarest animals.


Numbers of Asia's only great ape are now thought to be down to between 15,000 and 20,000, with the Bornean orang-utan (Pongo pygmaeus) numbering 12,000 to 15,000, and the Sumatran orang-utan (Pongo abelli) thought to be between 3,000 and 5,000.