Poverty Relief Key to Great Ape Survival, First Ape Atlas Shows

LONDON, UK, September 1, 2005 (ENS) - Fewer than 250 wild Sumatran orangutans may exist in 50 years - their habitat is disappearing and the devastation of the Indian Ocean tsunami centered near the Indonesia island of Sumatra has accelerated the rate of destruction. Disease, habitat destruction, and the bushmeat trade are wiping out all six species of great apes, but underlying all these threats is human poverty.

These are among the findings announced at the launch of the first "World Atlas of Great Apes and their Conservation" today by the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

The atlas provides a country-by-country assessment of the 23 range states inhabited by wild great apes. These countries are among the poorest in the world - 16 of the countries have an annual per capita income of less than US$800.

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Juvenile western lowland gorillas in Lefini, Congo (Photo by Ian Redmond courtesy UNEP-WCMC)
The atlas raises concerns over the increasing trade in great ape bushmeat, and the sale of orphans. Apes are killed and sold for meat, or captured and sold as pets or for exhibition. Entire groups of adults may be killed to capture one orphan for sale. In Central Africa, a chimpanzee or gorilla carcass can fetch the equivalent of up to US$25.

The atlas was introduced at the Zoological Society of London, Regents Park, London by Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

“We have a duty to rescue our closest living relatives as part of our wider responsibilities to conserve the ecosystems they inhabit," Toepfer said. “It is a moral issue of the highest importance. By conserving the habitats of the great apes, we are helping to overcome poverty and to conserve the natural wealth upon which current and future human generations depend. It seems a small price to pay."

Jim Knight, UK Minister for Biodiversity said at the launch event, "The great apes are our nearest animal relatives. They are self-aware, social creatures with cultures and politics, and communicate through both signs and language."

“Careful management of their forest and mountain habitats is absolutely vital as we try to manage and resolve the conflicts between apes and humans – balancing the conservation needs of great apes with the precarious livelihoods of the people who live in these areas. It is critical that we act now to ensure the survival of great apes in the wild," said Knight. "We will not get a second chance."

Lera Miles of the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, co-editor of the atlas; Glyn Davies, director of Conservation Programmes with the Zoological Society of London; and Mark Leighton, chair of the United Nations Great Ape Survival Project (GRASP) Interim Scientific Commission, all had dire warnings of looming extinction for the audience at the launch event.

The campaign to make African poverty a thing of the past that was the theme of Live 8 demonstrations in July will benefit the great apeas as well as humans, the ape experts said.

The issue is complex, said Davies. “Even though apes comprise a small fraction of the bushmeat trade in most instances, the impact on their populations is devastating. Every effort needs to be made to exclude apes from the trade and, wherever possible, build on cultural and religious taboos, which prohibit the consumption of ape meat."

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Man displays a dead chimpanzee on the top of a private bus in Kenema market, Sierra Leone. (Photo by Glyn Davies courtesy UNEP-WCMC)
"Awareness-raising campaigns which explain the law and the plight of ape populations are needed to achieve this, and to support improved law enforcement for these rare species, and the national parks where they are found," said Davies.

Miles said, “Within a generation – without better protection – we could see species becoming too depleted to survive long term in the wild.”

“The areas where great apes are at least risk from hunting occur 3-10 km from roads and these areas are dwindling," said Miles. "Roads provide access for mining and logging, fragment habitats and facilitate transport of bushmeat. As such they play a central role in the loss of the great ape.”

"It is also increasingly clear that disease is playing a part in the decline of ape populations and new research is needed, along with stronger efforts to limit disease transmission,” Davies said.

The continuing spread of the Ebola virus through Central Africa is a particular threat, with devastating effects on ape populations. Ebola spreads through contact with blood and other body fluids, putting bushmeat hunters and others who might handle carcasses of infected animals at risk.

The atlas maps the impact of infrastructure development on wildlife, and uses the GLOBIO computer model to simulate future changes. Independent studies support these findings, predicting that if current trends in Indonesia and Malaysia persist, the orangutan will lose 47 percent of its habitat in the next five years.

This prediction is confirmed by Ian Singleton, scientific director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program. “The biggest threats to the orangutan are logging and habitat fragmentation, such as that proposed by the Ladia Galaska road scheme," he said. "The ill-advised and heavily criticised Ladia Galaska road scheme may well prove the “final nail in the coffin” that puts the long-term conservation of Sumatran orangutans beyond our reach.

“Fifty years from now only seven of the current 13 orangutan populations are expected to remain. Of these, six will consist of fewer than 20 individuals. This would mean a total world population of just 234 wild Sumatran orangutans by the year 2054," Singleton said.

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Orangutan in the trees on the Indonesian island of Sumatra (Photo by Ian Singleton courtesy UNEP-WCMC)
“In contrast, if logging and removal of orangutans through hunting could be halted today, we could expect to have in the region of 6,570 remaining in 50 years."

“Clearly, rapid cessation of logging has immense implications for the prospects of Sumatran orangutan survival. But we have no reason for optimism," Singleton said.

The Indonesian Ministry of Forestry acknowledges that the current rate of forest loss nationwide is close to 3.8 million hectares per year, and Singleton predicts the forest clearing is about to accelerate due to the peace agreement signed earlier this month ending 30 years of conflict between the government of Indonesia and the separatist Aceh faction.

“If the recently signed peace deal in Aceh does bear fruit we expect habitat destruction rates to rocket," said Singleton. "Many existing logging concessions and oil palm plantations have been lying dormant since the conflict started. We can expect businesses to work as quickly and as rapidly as they can in order to recoup their losses.”

The atlas, edited at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, is the most comprehensive compendium of information about great apes ever compiled, bringing together the latest research and observations from scientists throughout the world and including contributions from Kofi Annan, Jane Goodall, Richard Leakey, Toshisada Nishida, Russ Mittermeier and Ian Redmond.

It provides population estimates for the six species of apes – the eastern and western gorilla, the chimpanzee, the bonobo, and the Sumatran and Bornean orangutan species.

Habitat fragmentation is a hazard as it isolates great ape populations from one another, increasing their vulnerability to random events such as forest fire and the longer-term genetic impacts of inbreeding.

The atlas presents new information on the distribution of the Cross River gorilla, one of the two subspecies of western gorilla, which has only around 250 to 280 individuals left. These few animals are distributed amongst more than 10 fragmented highland areas in the border area of Nigeria and Cameroon.

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Orphaned chimpanzees in an African sanctuary (Photo by Ian Redmond courtesy UNEP-WCMC)
Mark Leighton, who chairs the GRASP Interim Scientific Committee, said that conservation effort should be focused on areas where the populations are still viable and has identified a number of priority populations which illustrate why a large set of populations are required to maintain the genetic diversity.

Leighton said the "indicative list of priority populations," will be among the critical issues to be discussed at the Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP) Intergovernmental Meeting that opens Monday in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.

An action plan for Africa drafted by more than 70 primatologists and other experts who met in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, in May designates 12 areas for emergency programs intended to increase security against illegal hunting, protect great apes and tropical forests from logging, and slow the spread of the Ebola virus in the region.

Called the Regional Action Plan for Conservation of Chimpanzees and Gorillas in Western Equatorial Africa, the document seeks a multilateral response to the threats to populations of the western lowland gorilla and the central African chimpanzee that share the same habitat in six countries.

The plan estimates $30 million is urgently needed for anti-poaching activities, improved monitoring and response to Ebola outbreaks, increased training, and tourism development, and represents an urgent appeal to the international community for immediate action, before the damage is irreversible.

“Governments have a fundamental role to play," said Knight, "but so do millions of ordinary people who, through their compassion and their action, can help to turn the tide of the decline of great apes.”