The threats to great apes in 2012 are many. Their habitat is being relentlessly destroyed as farms and villages encroach on their last remaining forests. They are hunted and eaten by people in central and western Africa. They have been hit hard by emerging viruses. Ebola is the culprit in the deaths of perhaps thousands of gorillas and chimpanzees in the forests of central and western Africa. A research team recently discovered that the strain of Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV-cpz) most often found in chimpanzees may not be the silent, harmless progenitor of our own HIV/AIDS epidemic. Wild chimpanzees that test positive for SIV-cpz are far more likely to die when their immune systems are compromised by other ailments than are SIV-negative chimps. Conflict minerals have played a sinister role in Africa’s internal strife, and they also contribute to local extinction of gorillas. Coltan is a metallic ore used in the manufacture of capacitors in your smartphone that allows it to operate without overheating. Most of the world’s coltan supply is mined in the forests of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the areas where the eastern lowland gorilla is making its last stand. As a result, eastern lowland gorillas now number only in the low thousands by some estimates.
Of all the animal species threatened by extinction in the 21st century, it's the great apes whose loss we would suffer most. They are our next of kin, made of the same evolutionary fabric as the human species. They have served us as a mirror and a window. The chimpanzee, bonobo and gorilla are our cousins, along with the Asian orangutan. We’ve all grown up in a world in which we’ve gained new perspectives about ourselves from the great apes, through National Geographic and other magazines, through television documentaries, and through trips to the zoo. Losing them would be like losing a cherished family member; a piece of one’s life puzzle no longer there to provide clues about the person you are and how you became that person. What we have learned about human intelligence, language and emotions from our closest relatives has been immeasurably important.