UNEP: Great apes offer yardstick for environmental destruction

By Tierney Smith

Great apes offer a yardstick against which we can measure the destruction of the natural world, a leading ape conservationist has warned.

Douglas Cress from the Great Ape Survival Partnership at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) told RTCC that by taking apes away from their natural environment, we are causing those ecosystems to “implode”.

“It is clear that by saving the great apes, we are saving ourselves,” he said. “They are great indicators of the world we live in and the world that we are creating for ourselves.

“We have learnt over the years that if you take a large species, like a gorilla, or an elephant or a rhino out of a forest or out of an ecosystem, it all begins to crumble. You can’t take them out at the scale you are doing now without forests imploding on themselves.

“But when you put them back you find that forests actually recover quite quickly.”

There are four species of great ape around the world. Chimpanzees, gorillas, and bonobos which are found in equatorial Africa and orangutans found in South East Asia.

But human settlements, logging, mining, disease, deforestation and illegal trade are putting these species under threat.

Some reports predict certain species of ape could be extinct within a generation.

There are currently around 20,000 humans for every chimpanzee on the planet, and Cress warns that humans and apes are in direct competition.

“It turns out the great apes need exactly the same things as we do to survive; the same areas, the same habitats, the same temperatures, the same food,” he said. “We are in direct competition now with great apes. There is probably little doubt that we will win but we also have the grace and the intelligence not to push them off the planet, I think.”

Orangutans, for example, live on only two Indonesian islands – Sumatra and Borneo – and with the growing trend to convert forest into oil palm plantations, the number of these apes are down to just 55,000 in the wild.

In Africa, human encroachment, the extraction of timber and mining are putting other ape species under threat. In Nigeria, there are only 300 endangered Cross River gorillas living in the wild.

The illegal trade of apes is also a huge problem. Cress warns that hundreds of apes are being transported from Africa to Asia – mainly China and Vietnam – each year for pets.

Cress warned that we need to halt these destructive practices to ensure the survival of what he believes is such a vital creature.

“Humans do not have to continue the same destructive practices for centuries if it spells their doom – that is the definition of insanity, if you hope for a different result,” he said. “We can be smart enough to provide alternative livelihoods, sustainability models, provide different forms of nutrition. We can do a million things that aren’t as simple or as base as destroying habitats and killing great apes.”


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