September 5, 2005

Conservationists warn great apes face extinction

By David Lewis

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Poaching, logging and disease will
soon wipe out the last of the world's great apes unless new
strategies are devised to save humankind's closest relatives,
conservationists said on Monday.

From Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria in Africa to
the islands of Borneo and Sumatra in Asia, scientists fear
populations of gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans could
disappear within a generation without urgent action.

"As we sit today, it is important to remember we are
talking about the future of a member of our family, not a
strange creature that lives in the jungle," Richard Leakey, a
prominent conservationist from Kenya, told delegates from 23
countries at a conference in the Congolese capital Kinshasa on
saving apes.

"The problem of the apes is not a shortage of money, it is
a shortage of strategy," Leakey said. "Let us devote our minds
-- the one thing we have more of than other apes -- and let's
secure their future."

Democratic Republic of Congo is home to chimpanzees and
some of the last remaining mountain gorillas, among the world's
most endangered species, who roam the volcanic mountains in
Virunga National Park straddling the border with Rwanda and

The majestic apes were made famous by "Gorillas in the
Mist," the film about researcher Dian Fossey who studied them
in Rwanda in the 1960s and documented her work in a book before
she was hacked to death in Virunga in 1985.


Trade in "bush meat" by poachers who sell the animals for
food, logging and the Ebola virus have also pushed Africa's
western lowland gorilla and central African chimpanzee to the
brink of extinction.

"Those scientists who are authorities have showed that
habitat loss in addition to the trade in bush meat and logging
may cause great apes to disappear within our generation," said
Samy Mankoto, secretary-general of the meeting, organized by
the United Nations Environment Programme and the U.N. cultural
organization UNESCO.

"Although some groups may survive, their long-term
viability will be threatened by their dwindling numbers and
fragmentation of habitat," he said at the five-day meeting's
opening ceremony.

Some 600 delegates will issue a "Declaration on Great Apes"
at the end of the meeting on protection measures. The meeting
is part of the Great Apes Survival Project, a new initiative
designed to boost global cooperation over the animals.

Great apes are man's closest living relatives -- sharing
more than 95 percent of their genetic make-up -- and have
helped explain how humans evolved alongside millions of other

Despite decades of work by individuals and organizations,
conservationists fear scientists are about to lose a key link
between humans and the natural world.

In a 2002 survey of 24 protected areas in Africa and
Southeast Asia, great ape populations were found to be
declining in 96 percent of the sites.

"It can be asserted that today ... every one of the great
ape species is at high risk of extinction, either in the
immediate future or at best within 50 years," the United
Nations said in its Global Strategy for the Survival of the
Great Apes.