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.
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.
If this litany of woes makes the prospects of saving the great apes seem bleak, there are rays of hope. Ecotourism has been a savior of a few great ape populations. In fact, the mountain gorillas of the Virunga Volcanoes and nearby Bwindi Impenetrable National Park are probably the world’s only great ape population that is increasing. With the protection afforded by ecotourism, their population is growing by at least five per cent per year and they now total nearly nine hundred. Ecotourism makes these apes far more valuable alive than dead to local people and to African governments. Unfortunately, ecotourism won’t work in all areas, and is fragile even where it’s been highly successful. Gorilla tourism is subject to the instability of local governments, and civil wars, ethnic tension and rebel militias have shut down the ecotourism industry time and again.
Saving the great apes is a moral imperative. Losing them would be painful, tragic and ultimately terribly detrimental to all of humanity.
Craig Stanford is Professor of Biological Sciences and Anthropology and Director of the Jane Goodall Research Center at the University of Southern California. His latest book is Planet Without Apes, published by Harvard University Press.