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UN Failing To Save Apes From Extinction

By Ben McConville
The Scotsman - UK

NEW YORK -- Mankind has casually destroyed thousands of the species with which it shares the planet but wildlife experts warn that we are about to commit the most shocking act of annihilation yet.

They say many species of our closest relatives, the great apes of Africa and Southeast Asia, are now only 30 to 50 years away from extinction and a major United Nations drive to save them is in disarray.
Leading conservationists have accused the world community of squandering valuable time during which gorilla, orang-utan and chimpanzee populations have all suffered due to war, loss of habitat, the bushmeat trade and trophy hunting.
This week, an emergency meeting of the international community in Paris is to try to kickstart the failed Great Apes Survival Project (Grasp) launched by the UN Environment Programme two years ago.
Representatives from each of the 28 countries that have wild great ape populations will be at the meeting in Paris. It will be the first time they have sat down together at the same table and is to be the precursor for a government-level meeting arranged for the end of 2004.
The plight of gorillas, which can live for up to 50 years, has been the most prominent in recent times. There are three subspecies of gorillas. The two lowland varieties are still counted in their tens of thousands, but mountain gorillas are now only counted in their hundreds. World Conservation Monitoring scientists say there could be no more than 126,000 in all.
One population of eastern lowland gorillas in the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo is known to have halved to around 130, and another group in the Cross river region of Nigeria is down to only 150. The forest there is threatened by loggers, and has already been extensively damaged by wildfires.
Orang-utans, which live for 40 years, inhabit a huge geographical area in Indonesia, but experts say they are under threat in every region and there could be fewer than 20,000 left.
There are two species of chimpanzee and numbers are put at between 100,000 and 200,000. Their numbers are not dwindling in all areas of the world, but in some they are in serious danger - for example, there are thought to be only 4,000 to 6,000 surviving in Nigeria.
Doug Cress, from the Secretariat of Pan African Sanctuaries, which has 28 ape reserves from Gambia to South Africa, said so far Grasp had failed.
"Mountain gorilla populations are extremely tenuous and chimpanzees are hanging by a thread. They are close to extinction," he said.
"This is the best last hope for coordinating something comprehensive to manage the survival of the great apes. If there is a doomsday clock ticking then it's at one minute to midnight," Cress added.
"Grasp got into trouble almost from day one. It was overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.
"While the people there were well intentioned it was grossly under-funded and under-staffed. We need to turn it into an organisation that has clout like the International Whaling Commission, which it should have been all along."
But conservationists acknowledge that developing countries such as Congo and Rwanda, where many of the mountain gorillas are to be found, need incentives if they are to be convinced great apes are not expendable.
Cress said: "When you make the countries a stakeholder they take responsibility. But we in the West have a duty too, to help through debt relief and other incentives.
"It's always difficult telling an under-funded government with scarce resources and an undernourished population to pay attention to animals. They have priorities. But this really is it. It's now, or we lose these beautiful creatures for ever."
Better education and using the animals as commercial assets through tourism are seen as two ways to help conserve the apes that are left. Heather Eves, of the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force, one of the groups working with Unep, said: "Where great ape tourism has been developed, for instance in Uganda's Bwindi and Kibale Forest national parks, the animals have become to local communities an important source of revenue worth more alive than dead.
"But too few people are aware of the role gorillas play in regenerating woodlands by dispersing seeds and pruning trees. Along with elephants, the great apes are the gardeners of the African and Southeast Asian forests."
A spokesman for the Ape Alliance said: "Each year thousands of orang-utans have been killed or driven from their forests by illegal loggers. Thousands more gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos (pigmy chimpanzees) have been killed for bushmeat.
And new threats are emerging. In the Democratic Republic of Congo miners seeking the highly prized mineral tantalite, or coltan, have been pouring waste into the Biega national park and Okapi wildlife reserve."

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