September 9, 2005

Countries to Agree to Save Ape Habitats

KINSHASA, Congo -- Nearly two dozen countries were to commit themselves Friday to saving primate habitats and stopping poaching in a historic push to protect the world's dwindling great ape populations.

The Kinshasa Declaration is the culmination of a five-day conference held this week in Congo's capital. Experts warn that without urgent action, chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos and gorillas in Africa and Asia could disappear within a generation.

"The declaration affirms political will at the highest level for the first time in the history of the great apes," said Matthew Woods of the U.N. Great Apes Survival Project, which organized the meeting.

Officials said the agreement would be key to helping stamp out poaching and cross-border animal smuggling.

"We need the commitment of governments for anti-poaching efforts to work," said John Sellar, a Scottish former police officer who now heads the anti-smuggling and organized crime divisions for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. "Collaboration that is necessary has not been present until now."

Great apes - gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans - have been threatened for decades by logging, poaching and conflict worldwide. There are believed to be about 400,000 left Africa and Asia, compared to millions in the 19th century, according to the United Nations.

Last week, Washington-based Conservation International said a combination of logging, hunting and the dreaded Ebola virus was putting some ape species on the brink of extinction in Central Africa - notably the western lowland gorillas and the Central African chimpanzee.

Last year, experts estimated the population of eastern lowland gorillas in strife-torn eastern Congo had been cut by 70 percent in the past decade.

Scientists at the Kinshasa conference specified 100 priority zones, mostly in Africa, with viable populations of the four great apes where intensive efforts could stop their slide to extinction.

However, officials at the conference say that it is only once the declaration is signed that the real work will begin.

"It is all too easy to sign up to conventions," said Sellar, "Now these governments need to send a clear message that poaching will not be tolerated."

Ian Redmond, chief consultant for the U.N.'s Great Apes Survival Project, said the European Union had already committed US$2.4 million to great ape projects.

He welcomed the contribution, but said more was needed. "We need to be talking in tens of millions of dollars," Redmond said.

Edwin Wiek of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation said more than 100 orangutans are smuggled every year, often ending up performing in entertainment parks and boxing shows.

He said he hoped the declaration would help improve monitoring of such illegal smuggling and ultimately help stop it.

"We don't have any data system to monitor the illegal trade of great apes," he said. "Government support is crucial to building these systems."