World Environmental Leaders Pledge to Protect Great Apes

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, September 12, 2005 (ENS) - Governments from 27 nations joined scientists, environmental organizations, and representatives of business, industry, and communities Friday in signing the world's first Declaration on Great Apes - known as the Kinshasa Declaration.

The signing came on the final day of the week long Great Ape Survival Project (GRASP) Conference, where delegates gathered from around the world to formulate plans to protect threatened great ape populations in Africa and Asia.

The GRASP partnership is an ambitious project of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) with an immediate challenge - to lift the threat of extinction faced by gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans across their ranges in equatorial African and southeast Asia.

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Mature male silverback gorilla at the Bwindi National Park, Uganda (Photo by Martha Robbins courtesy UNEP/WCMC)
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan sent a message to the high-level group meeting at the Grand Hotel in Kinshasa, delivered by Klaus Toepfer, executive director of UNEP.

Annan encouraged participants to protect the last remaining great apes, most closely related to humans of all the animals.

"Like us," said Annan, "they are self-aware. They have tools, medicines, cultures and politics. Not only do they communicate with each other, they can learn to use sign language and have conversations with people."

"Sadly, however, we have not treated them with the respect they deserve," Annan said. "Habitat loss, disease, hunting and illegal trade are driving them to the brink of extinction. The total number of great apes in the world is now probably no more than 400,000, where only 50 years ago it was at least two million."

In the 23 African and Asian countries where great apes remain, their habitat has been reduced to fragmented patches of forest. By protecting these forests, Annan urged, we protect the great apes.

"None of these countries is rich," he said. "All are struggling to balance the development aspirations of their people with the need to ensure environmental sustainability."

"The great apes still have a chance," said Annan, "but their fate lies entirely in our hands."

UK Biodiversity Minister Jim Knight, who signed the declaration on behalf of the United Kingdom, said that it represents an important step forward in the work to ensure the survival of great apes in Africa and Asia.

Knight

UK Biodiversity Minister Jim Knight (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
"The issues we face are complex and difficult, but they are surmountable, particularly with the full force of the nations and organizations here today working towards this single goal," Knight said.

"These magnificent creatures are at great risk of extinction," he said, "and our work here will send a strong signal that we are serious about slowing the decline in our most endangered species and their habitats."

U.S. Ambassador to the DRC, Roger Meece, said the United States contributes to the Congo Basin Forest Project through the Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment, which supports great ape survival.

Djombo

Republic of Congo Minister of Forest Economy and Environment Henri Djombo (Photo courtesy ENB)
Henri Djombo, minister of forest economy and environment, Republic of Congo, emphasized that great ape range states lack the financial and technical resources to effectively combat poaching. He called on donors to provide funding and on international nongovernmental organizations to cooperate with their national counterparts.

WWF, the global conservation organization, believes this was an historic meeting as it is the first time a large diversity of partners - range states, donor states, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations, academic and scientific communities, and the private sector - have jointly committed to great ape conservation.

The signatories pledged to "do everything in our power to ensure the long-term future for all great ape species and to encourage the citizens of the world, in whatever capacity, to assist and support this initiative."

The Kinshasa Declaration says that all partners have agreed to - commit to the global great ape strategy set up at the meeting; support range states financially in their efforts to counter threats to apes; enhance cooperation on law enforcement; encourage provision of sustainable direct and indirect benefits to local people such as through ecotourism; significantly reduce the rate of loss of ape populations and their habitats by 2010; and ensure that GRASP realizes its potential to save apes.

Knight said, "Very importantly, the Declaration recognizes the need to reconcile the needs of local people with the needs of great apes, and that great apes and their habitats can help alleviate poverty in local communities through sustainable enterprises like tourism."

The UK now holds the rotating six month long Presidency of the European Council, a position that Knight says can be used to create situations in great ape range states that can keep the apes alive by alleviating poverty.

"This is particularly significant during our G8 Presidency and the package for Africa that was agreed at Gleneagles in July," said Knight. "We need to make it very clear to all that the goals of reducing poverty and protecting the environment are not mutually exclusive."

orangutan

An orangutan in the shrinking Sumatran rainforest (Photo courtesy Tenggara.net)
Conference delegates received the new World Atlas of Great Apes and their Conservation, which provides a country-by-country assessment of the 23 range states hosting the wild great apes. Information from the Atlas will be used to focus international attention for an 11th hour conservation effort to save the great apes.

The conference adopted a GRASP work plan which revolves around developing partnerships, raising awareness, building capacity, establishing pilot projects, best conservation practices, and fundraising.

"It is reassuring to see that so many countries and agencies have agreed to make more effort to conserve great apes," said Dr. Peter Stephenson, program officer at WWF's Africa/Madagascar Programme.

"WWF, as a major GRASP partner, is pleased to see that such a political commitment will justify and support our projects and activities on the ground."

"The key now is for everyone to go home and implement their promises to save great apes from extinction," said Stephenson.

The great apes are the closest living relatives to humans, bonobos sharing 98.4 percent of our DNA, gorillas 97.7 percent, orangutans 96.4 percent and chimpanzees 96 percent.