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West Africa | Central Africa | East Africa
Environment - Nature

Africa's great apes "on brink of extinction"

afrol News, 26 November - Africa's remaining wild gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos are on the brink of extinction and only large-scale conservation programmes can secure their future. Only during the last few years, the western chimpanzee has completely disappeared from Benin, the Gambia and Togo.

According to a recent report, 'The Great Apes - the road ahead,' less than 10 percent 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 UN environmental agency (UNEP) and the UN cultural agency (UNESCO) today jointly issued a warning to humankind, saying that we soon could loose our closest living relatives - the great apes - if not decisive steps are taken. Not only Africa's three great apes species are threatened, also Asia's one type, the orang-utans, is at high risk of extinction.

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

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.

- 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, the UN today warns. One of the most important populations of wild western chimpanzees lives in the Taï Biosphere Reserve in Côte d'Ivoire, which is seeing negative effects of the current political crisis in the region.

While the fate of the great apes in Western Africa already seems sealed, there is still some hope for the larger populations in Central Africa, in particular in the region's extensive rain forest. However, the UNEP-UNESCO study shows, neither these forests are in good health. Infrastructure construction and mining is rapidly encroaching the great apes' habitat.

Many great ape populations live in extremely remote areas, which are difficult to map, let alone monitor. To improve the data, UNESCO is working with the European Space Agency 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 Congo Kinshasa (DRC).

The project will compare satellite image archives to assess changes in gorilla habitats since 1992 in the Virunga National Park (Congo Kinshasa) 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, UN agencies are working with local rangers to help improve law enforcement and monitoring in all five of the Congo's World Heritage Sites, which are home to several great ape species.

- Law enforcement is an essential but single element in any conservation effort, comments Samy Mankoto of UNESCO. "We cannot just put up fences to try and separate the apes from people. 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."

UNEP and UNESCO and co-ordinators of the Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP) this week are organising an international crisis meeting on the great apes at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. This unprecedented gathering includes experts, representatives from the governments of the 23 great ape home "range states" in Africa and South East Asia as well as donor governments.

The Paris meeting intents to draw up nothing less than a survival plan for the great apes. During the conference, the UN said that US$ 25 million were "urgently needed" to lift the threat of imminent extinction from the remaining great apes.

- US$ 25 million 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 percent of their DNA with humans," he said.

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