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UN environmental agency launches 11th hour bid to save great apes

UN environmental agency launches 11th hour bid to save great apes

In a bid to mobilize global support for an 11th-hour effort to save humankind's closest living relatives from extinction, the United Nations environmental agency today launched the most comprehensive compendium of information about great apes ever compiled.

“It is not just humans that will benefit from a campaign to ‘make poverty history.’ For the other six species of great ape – the eastern and western gorilla, chimpanzee, bonobo, Sumatran and Bornean orangutan – it could literally save them from the cooking pot,” the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said.

The first World Atlas of Great Apes and their Conservation, edited at UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), provides a country-by-country assessment of the 23 states hosting the wild great apes, bringing together the latest research and observations from scientists throughout the world.

These countries are among the poorest in the world, so concerted international action is required if these species are to survive, the agency said. The book includes conservation status assessments at a species and country-view level. The great apes’ biology, behaviour and culture are also discussed in detail.

Fewer than 250 wild Sumatran orangutans may exist in 50 years, for example. Their habitat is disappearing and the devastation of the Asian tsunami has accelerated the rate of destruction, according to the Atlas’ findings, which cite poverty, growing use of ape meat as human food and the fragile habitat as among the major overall threats.

“If current trends continue, by 2032 [about] 99 per cent of the orangutan range will suffer medium to high impacts from human development, as will 90 per cent of the gorilla range, 92 per cent of chimpanzee range and 96 per cent of bonobo range,” UNEP warned.

“We have a duty to rescue our closest living relatives as part of our wider responsibilities to conserve the ecosystems they inhabit,” UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said. “You only have to look at the tropical forests, home to the great apes. Economists now calculate that they are worth $60 billion a year as a result of their ability to remove and store global warming gases from the atmosphere alone.”

Detailing the threats, the Atlas notes that with regard to poverty, 16 out of the 23 great ape range states have an annual per capita income of less than $800.

It raises concerns over the “growing bushmeat crisis,” in which forests “are being plundered in a way that is unprecedented,” citing the increasing trade in great ape meat and the sale of orphans to expatriates wanting to "rescue them." Entire groups of adults may be killed to capture one orphan for sale.

With regard to habitat, the Atlas maps the impact of infrastructure development on wildlife, citing predictions that if current trends in Indonesia and Malaysia persist, the orangutan will lose 47 per cent of its habitat just in the next five years, while at least 24 per cent of the bonobo’s range in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is already under logging concessions.

Fragmentation of habitat is also a problem. For example, the Cross River gorilla, of Central Africa, one of the two subspecies of western gorilla, which has only around 250 to 280 individuals left, are distributed among more than 10 fragmented highland areas, isolating great ape populations from one another and increasing their vulnerability.

It is also increasingly clear that disease, especially Ebola haemorrhagic fever, is playing a part in the decline of ape populations and new research is needed, along with stronger efforts to limit disease transmission, the Atlas shows.