One Minute to Midnight
The clock is standing at one minute to midnight for the great apesanimals that share more than 96% of their DNA with humans. If we lose any great ape species we will be destroying a bridge to our own origins and with it part of our own humanity.
Dr. Klaus Topfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme
All four of the worlds great ape specieschimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans, are facing extinction in their natural habitats in the very near future unless immediate and drastic action is undertaken on their behalf. Destruction of the apes natural habitat through logging and mining operations, the illegal bushmeat trade, civil unrest, and the spread of the Ebola virus throughout the primate population of Africa is threatening to eradicate all three African species within the next 15 to 20 years. Orangutans, which are not indigenous to Africa, face a similar fate. In 1950, the chimpanzee population of Africa stood at 5 million. Today that figure has been reduced to an estimated 152 to 255 thousand and continues to dwindle. And the figures for gorillas and bonobos are even more alarmingthe estimated population of mountain and lowland gorillas in Africa indicates that there are less than 100,000 of these animals remaining, and that only 20 to 50 thousand bonobos may remain in existence. These figures are based on 2001 estimates, and as it stands now there are probably more human children born in a single day throughout the world than there are living apes.
A preliminary 3 day conference was held in Paris beginning on November 26 of 2003 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and the United Nations Environment Programme to discuss the status and funding of their joint task force, the Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP). Delegates from 23 African nations and western donor nations met to discuss viable means of ensuring the continued survival of the four great ape species. Klaus Topfer called upon the donor nations to provide at least $25 million to finance GRASPs most basic operational needs. Their immediate goal is to fund increased law enforcement efforts in Africas National Parks and Reserves, to provide public educational programs to native Africans and westerners alike, and to bolster the economic infrastructure of the African countries in order to reduce their dependence on mining and slash and burn agriculture. Dr. Jane Goodall, special envoy for GRASP, while speaking of the conference on a recent lecture tour in Germany, stated that "the world is precariously close to the day when there will be no more great apes in the wild. Its quite possible that todays teenagers will raise their children in a world with no wild chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos. Its a tragic prospect, but there is still time to actthough scant little of it. I hope all of us, especially our young people, will do everything they can to save the great apes, who are so like us in so many ways."
It is imperative that we act now to save the great apes from extinction. It is only through the study of the great ape species that we will ever gain true insight into the origins of our own behavior and means of social order. They are the mirror image our own species, and the only living link to our distant ancestors. Chimpanzees and bonobos are more closely related to humans than they are to gorillas. Bonobos in particular should warrant our most immediate concern. They are closer genetically to humans than any other specieseven closer than chimps. Anatomically, they resemble Australopithecusour earliest hominid ancestor. They are capable of walking upright for far greater distances than chimpanzees, and they resemble humans more than chimps do. Their societies are female dominated, and they prefer to resolve personal conflicts through sexual behaviors rather than violence, unlike chimpanzees. Bonobos are found in only one section of the Congo River basin of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Congos brutal 40 year civil war has prevented western researchers from studying these apes, and their population has plummeted as a result of soldiers and displaced villagers hunting the bonobos for food. Their demise is imminent, and there are currently only 106 bonobos in captivity in all the worlds zoos.
The need for immediate intervention to end the further destruction of the bonobos and the other great ape species cannot be overemphasized. The loss of the worlds great ape species would be the greatest wound that we have ever inflicted on nature. It is only through them that we will ever gain a final understanding of where we came from, what we are, and what we will become.