Future Grim for World's Great Apes

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, September 3, 2002 - Less than 10 percent of the habitat now inhabited by the great apes of Africa will be left undisturbed by 2030 if road building, mining camps and other infrastructure developments continue at current levels says a new report to the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

Findings for the orangutans of Southeast Asia appear even bleaker. The report indicates that in 28 years there will be almost no habitat left that can be considered "relatively undisturbed."

The study from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), coordinator of the Great Apes Survival Project partnership (GRASP), includes findings by scientists from Norway and the United States.

Releasing the report in Johannesburg, UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer warned, "Roads are being built in the few remaining pristine forests of Africa and South East Asia to extract timber, minerals and oil. Uncontrolled road construction in these areas is fragmenting and destroying the great apes' last homes and making it easier for poachers to slaughter them for meat and their young more vulnerable to capture for the illegal pet trade."


Orangutan on a bridge in Borneo, Indonesia (Photo by Susan Thornton)
"Saving the great apes is also about saving people," said Toepfer. "By conserving the great apes, we will also protect the livelihoods of the many people that rely on forests for food, medicine and clean water. Indeed the fate of the Great Apes has great symbolic implications for humankind's ability to develop a more sustainable future."

A new method of evaluating the wider impacts of infrastructure development on key species was used in this study. The key species studied are the chimpanzee, the bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee, the gorilla and the orangutan.

The scientists looked in detail at each of these four species to assess the current, remaining, habitat deemed relatively undisturbed and able to support viable populations of apes. The experts then mapped the likely impact at current levels of infrastructure growth, and the area of healthy habitat that would be left to the apes in 2030.

While most studies focus on the actual area of land taken by a new road, mining camp or infrastructure development, the new method also factors in the wider impacts such as habitat fragmentation and noise disturbance.

"It is not too late to stop uncontrolled exploitation of these forests. By doing so, we may save not only the great apes, but thousands of other species," said Toepfer.

Toepfer called on all nations at the summit, on all sectors of society, to join our Great Apes Survival Project partnership.

Toepfer said, "Here, near the close of WSSD, we have an agreement to significantly reduce biodiversity loss by 2010. This is an important agreement. The Great Apes, our closest living relatives will be the litmus test of whether the world succeeds in this important goal or not".


Dead gorilla mother with surviving infant in the Congo. Another infant is missing. (Photo by Maryke Gray and Jose Kalpers courtesy African Wildlife Foundation)
The study estimates that around 28 per cent, or some 204,900 square kilometres of remaining gorilla habitat, can be classed as relatively undisturbed.

If infrastructure growth continues at current levels, the area left by 2030 is estimated to be 69,900 square kilometres or just 10 percent. It amounts to a 2.1 per cent, or 4,500 square kilometre, annual loss of low-impacted gorilla habitat in countries including Nigeria, Gabon, Rwanda and Burundi.

The study estimates that around 26 percent, or some 390,840 square kilometres of remaining chimpanzee habitat, can be classed as relatively undisturbed.

If infrastructure growth continues at current levels, the area left by 2030 is estimated to be 118,618 square kilometres or just eight percent. It amounts to a 2.3 percent, or 9,070 square kilometre, annual loss of low-impacted chimpanzee habitat from countries including Guinea, Cote D'Ivoire and Gabon.

The study estimates that around 23 percent, or some 96,483 square kilometres, of remaining bonobo habitat, can be classed as relatively undisturbed.

If infrastructure growth continues at current levels, the area left by 2030 is estimated to be 17,750 square kilometres or just four percent. It amounts to a 2.8 percent, or 2,624 square kilometre, annual loss of low-impacted bonobo habitat from the Democratic Republic of the Congo - the only country in which they are found.

The study estimates that around 36 percent, or some 92,332 square kilometres, of remaining orangutan habitat, can be classed as relatively undisturbed.

If infrastructure growth continues at current levels, the area left by 2030 is estimated to be 424 square kilometres or less than one percent. It amounts to a five percent, or 4,697 square kilometre, annual loss of low-impacted orangutan habitat from areas such as Sumatara, Indonesia, and Borneo which includes Kalimantan, Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam and Sarawak and Sabah, Malaysia.

The report, "The Great Apes - The Road Ahead," is edited by Dr. Christian Nellemann of UNEP Grid-Arendal in Norway and Dr. Adrian Newton of UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, UK.

As the study was launched at the summit, supporters of GRASP announced more cash backing for the project.

More funding was announced from the Government of the United Kingdom, and new money from the United Nations Foundation (UNF) and the wildlife charity the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) was earmarked for great ape survival.

Biodiversity expert Robert Hepworth, deputy director of the UNEP Division of Environmental Conventions, unveiled the organization's GRASP strategy document which will build on the work carried out by partners since the project was launched in 2001.

The strategy aims to cover all of the two dozen range states of the great apes and draw up national recovery action plans in collaboration with the governments concerned, wildlife groups and local people.

A key feature of the strategy is the role of the specially appointed ape envoys in raising the profile of the cause. GRASP has three special ape envoys who are Jane Goodall, the celebrated primate conservationist, Russ Mittermeier of Conservation International and Toshisasa Nishida of Kyoto University. Goodall and Mittermeier spoke personally about the unique partnership at today's event at the IUCN Centre in Johannesburg.

Hepworth announced other new GRASP partners including the Dian Fossey Gorilla Foundation of Europe, the World Conservation Society, the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation and the Pan African Sanctuaries Alliance.

UNESCO, a partner in the GRASP initiative, is also working with the European Space Agency to image and map ape habitats in the Albertine Valley of Africa's Central Rift region.

The full report is available at http://www.globio.info

A list of GRASP partners can be found at: http://www.unep.org/grasp/partners.asp