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International Initiative To Save Great Apes Launched By UNEP As Experts Warn That Humankind's Closest Relatives Doomed Without Urgent Action

Washington/Nairobi 21 May 2001 - A major international project to save the Great Apes from extinction is today being launched by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The initiative, called the Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP), will target key areas in Africa and South East Asia where humankind's closest relatives are teetering on the brink as a result of war, habitat destruction, capturing of live infants for sale and poaching

for trophies, souvenirs and their meat.

Klaus Toepfer, the Executive Director of UNEP, said: "A global effort is now needed to combat this disaster. The clock is standing at one minute to midnight for the Great Apes. Some experts estimate that in as little as five to ten years they will be extinct across most of their range. Local extinctions are happening rapidly and each one is a loss to humanity, a loss to a local community and a hole torn in the ecology of our planet. We can no longer stand by and watch these wondrous creatures, some of whom share over 98 per cent of the DNA found in humans, die out".

He called on industry and business to back the initiative which is being started with US dollars 150,000 from UNEP:" We are working with wildlife groups and non-governmental organizations, several of whom have been battling for years to stem the demise of the gorilla, orangutan, chimpanzee and bonobos. But this needs to be a global effort with many partners. Goodwill is not enough. The urgency of the situation demands a higher level of action. We need funding and support from all sectors of society".

Robert Hepworth, Deputy Director of UNEP's Division of Environmental Conventions and a biodiversity expert, added: "To get the project really up and running will require well over US dollars one million. But the world has a special duty to save the Great Apes and by saving them we will be also saving a whole raft of animal and plant species who exist in their remaining habitats".

Ian Redmond, chairman of the Ape Alliance which is a coalition of more than 40 conservation organizations, said: "During this year, thousands more orangutans have been killed or driven from their forests by illegal loggers, thousands more African apes have been killed for bushmeat to feed miners, loggers or the insatiable urban markets and thousands of rangers and wardens have lacked the means to do their job to protect even those apes living in national parks. New threats are also emerging. In the Democratic Republic of Congo miners seeking the highly prized mineral colomo-tantalite or coltan have been pouring into the Kahuzi-Biega National Park and Okapi Wildlife Reserve which are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The mineral is used in mobile phones, aircraft engines and micro-chips".

Holly Dublin, senior conservation officer for WWF said: "While field political instability remains a threat to mountain gorillas and other Great Apes in Africa, it has been possible to maintain these populations through local, regional and international support and collaboration".

Mr Redmond added: "UNEP's leadership offers the chance for governments, non governmental organizations and individuals to act decisively and together, now, to reverse this decline - not only for the apes' sake, but for the sake of their human neighbours who benefit from their presence".

GRASP, which will be working with Ape Alliance groups including the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Born Free Foundation, Fauna and Flora International, the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force and the World Wide Fund for Nature, has initially identified five potential programmes in need of urgent support. It is planned to extend the initiative to all of the 23 countries that still have Great Apes.

In some cases projects will include giving rangers and wardens state of the art communications equipment and vehicles. In some places wildlife corridors linking fragmented habitats and isolated populations are needed. Educating local people on the value of Great Apes for eco-tourism and for protecting forests will also play a key role, the report argues.

Heather Eves ,Director of the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force said:" Where Great Ape tourism has been developed, for instance in Uganda's Bwindi and Kibale Forest National Parks, they have become to local communities an important source of revenue worth more alive than dead. Meanwhile too few people, who depend on the forests for fuel, building materials, medicinal plants and food, are aware of the role gorillas play in regenerating woodlands by dispersing seeds and pruning trees. Along with elephants they are the gardeners of the African and south East Asian forests".

Some Potential Projects Under GRASP's First Phase The Cross River Gorillas of the Afi Mountains in Nigeria UNEP estimates that only around 150 individuals are left making the Cross River Gorillas the most critically endangered in the world. The Afi Mountain

population of Gorilla gorilla diehli numbers about 20.

Threats include over-logging of their forest home, encroaching agriculture, hunting, and wild fires as a result of farmland clearance. Efforts have been made to tackle the threats by groups including Pandrillus, the Nigerian Cross River State Forestry Commission and Fauna and Flora International.

Research indicates that a range of urgent actions are needed including a community ranger programme to prosecute offenders within the wildlife sanctuary; the development of fire management strategies; school education schemes and gorilla monitoring programmes.

Chimpanzees in the Cote D'Ivoire

There were once more than one million wild chimpanzees in Africa at the beginning of the 1900s but at current rates of decline they could be extinct by 2010 or 2020. Poaching, forest habitat destruction, the bushmeat trade as well as disease is affecting the animals.

The Cote D'Ivoire, which has seven National Parks with chimpanzees including Tai,

Banco, Marahoue and Mont Nimba, contains the largest population of chimps in West Africa but most live in fragmented and dispersed populations that have limited prospect of long term survival.

"The important role chimpanzees have in all traditional African mythologies and beliefs of the forest regions, as well as the genuine interest humans have in the chimpanzees, could be used to benefit conservation measures," UNEP concludes.

A conservation action plan for each of the key sites is proposed which would include improving protection for the remaining chimpanzees, evaluating tree planting schemes to improve their habitat, training people from local communities to monitor

given sections of the park and the establishment of education centers where adults and children are encouraged to actively participate in conservation.

The Tanjung Puting National Park, Indonesia Orangutans are in grave danger of extinction with viable populations lost in as little as ten years. Their rainforests are being converted to agriculture, including palm oil plantations, and more recently are

threatened by illegal logging and gold mining in protected areas.

The Tanjung Puting park is in the province of Central Kalimantan on the south coast of Borneo. The Orangutan Foundation's Environmental Monitoring Programme employs local people on foot and in boats to patrol designated areas to monitor illegal activities

and negotiate with illegal gold miners and loggers.

UNEP believes that the eco-tourism potential is significant and would like to assist the park authorities in the design of an eco-tourism development programme allied to more organized enforcement.

Mr Hepworth said it was vital to galvanize all sections of the United Nations in the effort as well as governments and the corporate sector. The Environmental Management Group, recently launched by the United Nations, should tackle the issue, he said.

"The World Health Organization should have an interest in the fate of the Great Apes because of their importance along with primates generally in medical research for the study of the natural history of disease. Some scientists believe that AIDS may have been spread to humans through the eating of bushmeat. Who knows what other deadly diseases may be transmitted to humans if we continue to exploit the Great Apes for food at current rates," said Mr. Hepworth.

Other United Nations bodies with a potential interest include United Nations Development Programme in areas such as of eco-tourism and the Food and Agricultural Organization because of its interest in food, he suggested.

For More Information Please Contact Nick Nuttall, Media Officer at UNEP, on Tel:254 2 623084, mobile: 254 2 733 632755, e-mail: nick.nuttall@unep.org (In Washington on May 18-May 19 please telephone 202 785 0465 or mobile 1 917 520 5235) or Tore Brevik, Spokesman/Director, Communications and Public Information in Nairobi on Tel:254 2 623292, e-mail:tore.brevik@unep.org

UNEP News Release 01/54