$25 million needed to save great apes from extinction, UN agencies say

26 November 2003

Humankind’s closest living relatives, the great apes, are on the brink of extinction and $25 million is urgently needed to lift the threat, a United Nations sponsored crisis meeting was told today.

“$25 million is the bare minimum we need, the equivalent of providing a dying man with bread and water,” the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Klaus Toepfer, told the conference at UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquarters in Paris.

“The clock is standing at one minute to midnight for the great apes, animals that share more than 96 percent of their DNA with humans. If we lose any great ape species we will be destroying a bridge to our own origins, and with it part of our own humanity,” Mr. Toepfer said. Every one of the great ape species is at high risk of extinction, either in the immediate future or at best within 50 years, the agencies noted in a news release.

Under UNEP and UNESCO auspices, representatives from the 23 great ape home “range states” in Africa and South-East Asia as well as donor governments, UN agencies, non-government organizations (NGOs) and other partners of the Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP), are meeting to draw up nothing less than a survival plan for the world’s remaining gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans.

“Great apes form a unique bridge to the natural world,” UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura told the meeting. “The forests they inhabit are a vital resource for humans everywhere, and for local people in particular a key source of food, water, medicine as well as a place of spiritual, cultural and economic value. Saving the great apes and the ecosystems they inhabit is not just a conservation issue but a key action in the fight against poverty.”

The great apes are under increasing threat of extinction as the result of various human activities. Growing human populations encroaching on their habitat, civil wars, poaching for meat, the live animal trade, and above all, the destruction of forests are increasingly taking their toll.

According to a recent UNEP report, “The Great Apes – the road ahead”, less than 10 per cent of their remaining forest habitat in Africa will be left relatively undisturbed by 2030 if road building, construction of mining camps and other infrastructure developments continue at current levels. Findings for the orangutans of South East-Asia appear even bleaker. The report indicates that in 28 years time there will be almost no habitat left that can be considered “relatively undisturbed.”

Research indicates that the western chimpanzee has already disappeared from three African countries - Benin, the Gambia and Togo. UNEP and UNESCO, coordinators of GRASP, fear that if urgent action is not taken, the next wave of country-level extinction could occur in Senegal, where a mere 200 to 400 wild chimpanzees remain. Other countries where the fate of the western chimpanzee hangs in the balance include Ghana, which has just 300 to 500 left, and Guinea-Bissau where the population is down to less than 200 individual animals.

Since it was launched in May 2001, GRASP has seen 16 of the 23 great ape range states apply new conservation measures. Policy making workshops have already been held in six of these countries, bringing together stakeholders from government, academia and private industry as well as NGOs and the UN. These have lead to the drafting of national plans that show exactly how the necessary funds can be applied to make a real difference to ape numbers on the ground.


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