August 31, 2005

Emergency Plan Unveiled to Save Africa’s Apes

JOHANNESBURG -- Conservationists unveiled a $30 million plan on Wednesday to save the great apes of Africa, which are under threat of extinction from man and disease.

Conservationists say the western lowland gorilla and the central African chimpanzee are on the cusp of extinction, with poaching for the "bushmeat" trade, rampant logging and the Ebola virus the main threats to their survival.

"This devastating mix of threats leaves us on the brink of losing some of our closest living relatives," said Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International.

While experts say precise estimates for remaining ape numbers are difficult to pin down, there is a consensus among conservationists that they are in steep decline.

"We're not sure of reliable estimates. There are fears that previous numbers are out of date and are overestimations," Emma Stokes, one of the plan's authors, told Reuters by phone from the Republic of Congo.

Drawn up by more than 70 experts and government officials, the plan designates 12 sites in five countries: Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, Central African Republic, and Equatorial Guinea.

Seven "exceptional sites" have ape populations exceeding 2,000 in a large area while five "important sites" have populations of 500 to 2000 in areas covering 1,219 to 9,011 square kilometers.

The plan, with a price tag of $30 million over 5 years, has targeted these sites for emergency programs intended to increase security against illegal hunting and logging and slow the spread of the Ebola virus.

Proposed measures include combating poaching and improving monitoring, response to Ebola outbreaks, training and tourism development.

"The plan represents an urgent appeal to the international community for immediate action, before the damage is irreversible," Conservation International said in a statement.

Conservation International said the highly contagious Ebola virus was having devastating effects on ape populations.

And since it spreads through contact with blood and other body fluids, bushmeat hunters and other people who handled carcasses of infected animals were also at risk.