- A United Nations conservation expert has called for the protection of gorillas and elephants to be included in global climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December as a major factor in sustaining healthy African forests, a central element in temperature control.
“I would estimate that the apes and elephants of Africa disperse some 7 billion seeds every day,” UN Ambassador for the Year of the Gorilla Ian Redmond said, noting that it took more than 1,000 times that period for a project backed by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to plant 7 billion new trees.
UN agencies have repeatedly pointed to the vital role that forests play in the health of Earth, since they absorb carbon dioxide, a key factor in global warming. UNEP reported last month that the project, launched in 2006 in a bid to push governments into reaching agreement in Copenhagen, had exceeded its goal, with China planting 2.6 billion trees, bringing the total to 7.3 billion trees planted in 167 countries.
“The gorillas and elephants of Africa are doing the world a service,” Mr Redmond said following a fact-finding mission across eight African gorilla range states. “The full extent of the role they play in maintaining the health of their forest habitat - a central component of the Earth's climate regulation - is still poorly understood,” he added.
Large mammals, such as elephants and gorillas, are keystone species in their relevant ecosystems. Gorillas act as ‘gardeners’ in the rainforests of the Congo Basin, and protecting them helps prevent loss of flora that are ecologically dependent on them. They are second only to elephants in the number of seeds they disperse. When eating fruit and seeds, the seeds pass through their system and are in this way prepared for germination.
Fifteen years of armed conflicts in the Great Lakes region of Africa, accompanied by illegal exploitation of minerals to finance militias, led to a sharp increase in demand for so-called bush meat. Rapid urbanisation has also accelerated deforestation through charcoal production, and gorillas and elephants have been poached in large numbers.
A dramatic decline in the diversity of vegetation can be observed in parts of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As gorillas declined and elephants vanished from the montane area, the flora changed into denser, less diverse vegetation, and weed-like plants, formerly held in check by elephants and gorillas, have become much more dominant, suffocating trees and thereby accelerating deforestation.
By building nests, gorillas break off branches and create gaps in the forest canopy, letting light through to the forest floor and enabling smaller plants to grow. Hence the survival of forests requires the protection of the animals in them as well as the trees, the UNEP has noted.
In the long term, deforestation is as much a consequence of over-hunting as of cutting trees for charcoal or timber, UNEP reported.
Supporting existing national action plans to halt deforestation of gorilla habitat is one of the major objectives of Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS) Agreement on the Conservation of Gorilla and their Habitat during the Year of the Gorilla campaign.
UNEP launched the Year, aimed at halting the slide towards extinction of one of humankind’s closest relatives, in January when a troupe of skaters disguised as apes took to the rink at London’s Natural History Museum, highlighting the theme ‘Gorillas on Thin Ice.’
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