Environment Page
Great Ape Loss

If the current theories of evolution are correct, human beings were once an animal very similar to a tree shrew. The great apes of this world, with whom we share the vast majority of our dna, are extremely advanced creatures in an evolutionary sense, far more advanced than humans once were millions of years ago. They have the ability to learn sign language, develop complex social groupings, and in one form or another hold much of the attributes of thought that we think are unique to humans. It is a mark of the soul of modern humanity that we are wiping out these, our closest evolutionary kindred, often in cruel and unneccesary ways. Many may soon only be found in the unatural captivity of zoos, and the horror of the animal experimenters cage.

World's Great Apes Are Disappearing


LISLE, Ill. (AP) _ The world's great apes are hurtling toward extinction at a rate that is alarming scientists. At an urgent meeting this week of wildlife and zoo researchers from 12 nations, experts said new estimates of the populations of chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans are far lower than they were even a year or two ago, with some species down to a few thousand, or even a few hundred.

Even more alarming, experts reported, is the expansion of hunting and habitat destruction in some of the most politically unstable nations in Africa and Asia.

But agreeing how to rapidly and effectively save humans' closest relatives, or even deciding which species might be the most endangered, is proving to be a complicated and contentious task. 'We have a crisis of such immense proportions that I don't believe that most people realize how bad it is,' said primate expert John F. Oates of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

'We have to stop sitting on our hands. Jane Goodall has said that in 20 years there would be no more chimpanzees. Well, that is being revised to 10 years, or even five.''

The great apes might be the most well-known of the endangered primates, but their plight is not unique. According to Conservation International, a Washington-based non-profit group, 10 percent of the world's 608 primate species and subspecies on three continents are critically imperiled, meaning they could vanish at any time. Another 10 percent are endangered, meaning they would probably go extinct in the next 20 years without intervention.

The most urgent threats are logging, hunting, war and the millions of impoverished refugees who rely on the same forests as the primates for food, fuel and shelter.

Participants at the meeting agreed that conventional conservation measures _ such as establishing national parks and rehabilitation centers for orphaned and injured animals _ were overwhelmed in the 1990s.

In Indonesia, for example, orangutans are disappearing at a rate of more than 1,000 per year, with fewer than 15,000 remaining. They are the slowest-breeding of the great apes, with females bearing one infant every eight years. Political turmoil has encouraged rampant illegal logging in the orangutan's native swamp forests on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, as well as the setting of huge forest fires and the spread of palm oil plantations. The orangutans' habitat shrank by 50 percent in the 1990s alone, as illegal logging quadrupled, researchers reported. Mobs have destroyed national park headquarters and threatened scientists.

`It's the revenge of the little guy,' Birute Galdikas, who has studied orangutans in Borneo for 28 years, said of the loggers, most of whom are impoverished locals. ``They are taking what they believe is theirs and no conservationist is going to stop them.'' Other orangutan researchers want to see the Indonesian government crack down on the illegal loggers and encourage ecotourism to boost the economy.

`They need to enforce existing laws and land-use plans,' said Duke University anthropologist Carel van Schaik, who studies orangutans in northern Sumatra. `We need a moratorium on cutting in old-growth forest.'

The orangutans might not even be the most imperiled of the great apes. Some suggest that distinction belongs to the bonobo, or pygmy chimpanzee. It is found only in the Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire.

The bonobo might be the closest living link to our human ancestors. Like other chimps, it shares nearly 99 percent of its genetic material with humans. Much of its brain structure and key neurons overlap with those of humans, and it tends to walk more upright.

Civil war and hunting have drastically reduced the bonobos' range. Bonobo meat, along with that of chimps and gorillas, appears on restaurant menus.

`There is no reliable estimate of the bonobo population. It could be 5,000,' said Gay Reinartz, associate curator of the Milwaukee Zoo. `The war in Congo has brought a halt to all field research.'

Cameron Green
Last Updated - Fri, 30 Jan 2015 07:04:32 -0600