08.11.2012 - Natural Sciences Sector

A World of Science: Great Apes

© Chloé CipollettaWestern Lowland Gorilla (Sangha Trinational)

A World of Science, UNESCO’s quarterly natural science newsletter, has been providing information on UNESCO’s work in this field since 2002. To celebrate its 10th anniversary, we will draw from its extensive archives to publish a weekly thematic feature. This week, in honour of Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) 2nd Council meeting, we will focus on Great Apes and biodiversity.

The following extracts are taken from the article “Our Closest Relatives on the Brink of Extinction”, first published in Volume 3, N)1 Jan-March 2005.

Time is running out for the world’s remaining gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans, say UNESCO and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), coordinators of the Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP). ’If we lose any Great Ape species’, UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer warns, ‘we shall be destroying a bridge to our own origins and with it part of our own humanity’. The Great Apes share more than 96% of their DNA with humans. To lift the threat of imminent extinction, UNESCO and UNEP are rallying a wide range of partners, including NGOs and private interests, to channel human and financial resources into establishing areas where ape populations can stabilise and increase. The challenge will be to conserve both the Great Ape populations and their habitat.

Great Ape habitat shrinking fast
According to a recent UNEP report, The Great Apes – the road head, less than 10% of the remaining forest habitat of the Great Apes of Africa will be left relatively undisturbed by 2030 if road building, construction of mining camps and other infrastructure developments continue at current levels. The report looks in detail at each of the four Great Ape species to assess the current, remaining habitat deemed relatively undisturbed and thus able to support viable populations of apes. The experts have then mapped the likely impact and area of healthy habitat left in 2030 at current levels of infrastructure growth.

A race against time
UNESCO is working with the European Space Agency to use satellites or remote sensing to better monitor the rate of habitat destruction. At the same time, UNESCO is working with local rangers to help improve law enforcement and monitoring in all five of the DRC’s World Heritage Sites: the National Parks of Virunga, of Garamba, Kahuzi-Biega and Salonga, and the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.

Law enforcement is an essential but single element in any conservation effort. We cannot just put up fences to try and separate the apes from people,’ says Samy Mankoto of UNESCO. ‘Great Apes play a key role in maintaining the health and diversity of tropical forests, which people depend upon. They disperse seeds throughout the forests, for example, and create light gaps in the forest canopy which allow seedlings to grow and replenish the ecosystem.’

To better understand Great Apes, studies are underway in several UNESCO biosphere reserves that are home to the chimpanzee, gorilla and orangutan. One of the most important populations of wild chimpanzees lives in the Taï Biosphere Reserve in Côte d’Ivoire, where a team of zoologists has been studying their behaviour since 1979. Much of what we know today about orangutan toolmaking comes from studies in the Tanjung Putting Biosphere Reserve in Indonesia. These studies are combined with a variety of projects to reconcile conservation with the needs of local communities.

To stimulate scientific research, GRASP is currently developing a small grant scheme, in collaboration with Conservation International. Since GRASP’s inception in May 2001, 16 of the 23 Great Ape range states have applied new conservation measures specifically designed for these species. Policy-making workshops have been held in six of these countries, bringing together stakeholders from government, academia and private industry, as well as NGOs and the United Nations.

It is anything but fortuitous if some of the countries chosen to host these workshops are politically unstable or emerging from conflict, as in the case of Rwanda and the DRC. On the contrary, the national plans are considered an important tool for rebuilding war-torn countries. As the Head of the GRASP Technical Support Team, Ian Redmond, put it, there is ‘evidence that a common concern for conservation in general and apes in particular can bring people together despite war and political differences’.

These workshops have led to the drafting of national plans that show exactly how the necessary funds can be applied to make a real difference to ape numbers on the ground.

By Samy Mankoto, Lucilla Spini and Amy Otchet

Related information:

  • Decision support tool for gorilla conservation in Central Africa

  • Biosphere reserves and great apes conservation
    Several biosphere reserves across equatorial Africa and south-east Asia are home to chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans. These sites are ‘living laboratories’ to better understand great apes and several studies are underway. Much of what we know today about orangutan toolmaking is the result of studies in the Tanjung Puting Biosphere Reserve in Indonesia. These studies are combined with a variety of projects to reconcile conservation with the needs of local communities.

  • World Heritage sites and great apes conservation
    The World Heritage List comprises a number of natural sites that are crucial for the conservation of Great Apes. Approximately 90% of the range of the mountain gorilla, through the work of Diane Fossey, is included in the World Heritage sites of Virunga National Park in the DRC and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.

    The other Great Ape species also benefit from the Convention: the Kahuzi-Biega National Park (DRC) covers approximately 70% of the remaining population of the Grauer’s Gorilla, whereas the Salonga National Park (DRC) is the only protected area in the world to harbour the bonobo, the closest living relative to man. Chimpanzees are also well represented in a number of World Heritage sites. Lowland gorillas are covered by the Dja Faunal Reserve in Cameroon and by the Sangha Trinational site situated in the north-western Congo Basin, where Cameroon, Central African Republic and Congo meet. In 2004, with the addition of the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra, which comprises three National Parks, some of the habitat of the orangutan was finally also represented on the List.

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