26 November 2003


Press Release


UNEP and UNESCO Call Emergency Meeting to Save Great Apes

PARIS/NAIROBI, 26 November (UNEP) -- Twenty five million dollars is urgently needed to lift the threat of imminent extinction from humankind's closest living relatives, delegates to an international crisis meeting on the great apes were told today at UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

Such a sum, says the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is essential for reducing the risk of extinction of the world's remaining gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans, and for establishing areas where ape populations could stabilize or even increase.

"Twenty five million dollars is the bare minimum we need, the equivalent of providing a dying man with bread and water", said Klaus Toepfer, UNEP Executive Director.  "The clock is standing at one minute to midnight for the great apes, animals that share more than 96 per cent 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", he said.

"Great apes form a unique bridge to the natural world", said Koïchiro Matsuura, UNESCO Director-General.  "The forests they inhabit are a vital resource for humans everywhere, and for local people in particular a key source of food, water, medicine, as well as a place of spiritual, cultural and economic value.  Saving the great apes and the ecosystems they inhabit is not just a conservation issue, but a key action in the fight against poverty."

Every one of the great ape species is at high risk of extinction, either in the immediate future or at best within 50 years.

"Research indicates that the western chimpanzee has already disappeared from three countries -- Benin, the Gambia and Togo", said Samy Mankoto, a UNESCO expert on biosphere reserves in Africa, which are home to several great ape populations.

UNEP and UNESCO, co-ordinators of the Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP), fear that if urgent action is not taken the next wave of country-level extinction could take place in Senegal, where a mere 200 to 400 wild chimpanzees remain.

Other countries where the fate of the western chimpanzee hangs in the balance include Ghana, which has just 300 to 500 left, and Guinea Bissau, where the population is down to less than 200 individual animals.

The plight of the western chimpanzee is just one of the great ape species on the agenda of the unprecedented gathering of experts and government representatives in Paris this week.

Under the auspices of UNEP and UNESCO, representatives from the 23 great ape home "range states" in Africa and South East Asia, as well as donor governments, United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations and other GRASP partners are meeting to draw up nothing less than a survival plan for the great apes.

GRASP has four patrons, namely, Jane Goodall, the celebrated primate conservationist, Russ Mittermeier, head of Conservation International, Toshisada Nishida of Kyoto University, one of the world's most famous and longest-serving primatologists, and Richard Leakey, world-famous conservationist and palaeoanthropologist.

"I doubt if there is any challenge of greater importance than that presented by the current status of the great apes", said Richard Leakey.  "Conservationists and governments must come together to put the necessary measures in place to ensure that the bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans are saved from extinction.  This must be the point of departure for the Paris meeting."

The great apes are under increasing threat of extinction as the result of various human activities.  Growing human populations encroaching on their habitat, civil wars, poaching for meat, the live animal trade, and above all, the destruction of forests are increasingly taking their toll.

According to a recent UNEP report, "The Great Apes -- the road ahead", less than 10 per cent 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.

Findings for the orangutans of South East Asia appear even bleaker.  The report indicates that in 28 years time there will be almost no habitat left that can be considered "relatively undisturbed”.

Many great ape populations live in extremely remote areas, which are difficult to map, let alone monitor.  To improve the data, UNESCO works with the European Space Agency, which brings together all international space agencies, to use satellites or remote sensing to better monitor the rate of habitat destruction.  The project has begun by mapping the habitats of the mountain gorilla.  Only about 600 are alive in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The project will compare satellite image archives to assess changes in gorilla habitats since 1992 in the Virunga National Park (DRC) and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Uganda), which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  The Parc National des Volcans (Rwanda) and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (Uganda) may soon join this list.

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, which are home to several great ape species.

"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", said 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 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 is from 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.

Since it was launched in May 2001, GRASP has seen 16 of the 23 great ape range states apply new conservation measures specifically designed for these species.  Policy making workshops have already been held in six of these countries, bringing together stakeholders from government, academia and private industry, as well as non-governmental organizations and the United Nations.  These have lead 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.

"It’s basic arithmetic", said Rob Hepworth, Deputy Director of UNEP's division of environmental conventions.  "The multiplication of threats to the endangered apes.  The division of their habitats.  The subtraction in overall ape numbers.  To get the sums right, we need the addition of the value which the GRASP WSSD [World Summit for Sustainable Development] Partnership is already providing  -- a focused effort by two major United Nations agencies, four wildlife conventions, and eighteen non-governmental organizations to raise awareness, raise funds, and raise our conservation game so we stop the great apes from becoming history."

The meeting in Paris this week will develop a Global Great Ape Conservation Strategy.  It will also prepare for an inter-governmental ministerial meeting on Great apes and GRASP to be held in late 2004.

For information contact:  Mellab Shiluli, Public Information Assistant, Division of Communications and Public Information (DCPI), United Nations Environment Programme, P.O. Box 30551, NAIROBI, KENYA, Tel.:  (254 2) 623089, Fax: (254 2) 623692, Email: Mellab, Web:

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For information media. Not an official record.