Page last updated at 15:07 GMT, Tuesday, 5 August 2008 16:07 UK

Driving primates to the edge

Russell Mittermeier (Image: COnservation International)
Russell Mittermeier

The IUCN Red List of primates makes grim reading, says Conservation International president Russell Mittermeier. In this week's Green Room, he says the sooner we listen to the message that our closest living relatives are telling us, the longer we have to save ourselves.

Kanzi, a bonobo chimp (Image: Great Ape Trust)
Bonobo chimps, like Kanzi, face an uncertain future
If these highly intelligent species are dying out, what does that mean for us, their human cousins?

Monkeys and apes are trying to tell us something. After all, some of the non-human primates that share 98.5% of our genetic code can and do talk to us.

Take Kanzi, for instance; this bonobo chimp understands thousands of words, uses sentences, expresses emotions and concern for others; even talks on the phone.

Whether certain primates, such as chimps and other apes, use language the same way people do remains a matter of scientific debate.

But one thing about primates that scientists agree upon today is that they are among the most threatened animal species on Earth.

Results of the most recent global primate assessment have been discussed this week at the annual International Primatological Society meeting, held in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The survey was done as part of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and it is grim reading.

Nearly 50% of the world's 634 primate species and subspecies are in danger of going extinct. The situation is most dire in Asia, where more than 70% could disappear forever in the near future.

News reports of a global species extinction crisis appear every now and then. Somehow, the fact that hundreds and perhaps even thousands of species are lost daily - gone forever, irreplaceable - has not roused much alarm among the general public.

Why it matters

Will it matter when the chimps, lemurs, gorillas and cotton-topped tamarins are all gone? After all, what has a monkey done for you lately?

Yellow cheeked crested gibbon (Image: Conservation International/Sterling Zumbrunn)
The yellow cheeked crested gibbon is listed as Endangered

Right now, the message monkeys are sending could help us all have a healthier, more secure and prosperous planet.

If these highly intelligent species are dying out, what does that mean for us, their human cousins?

It means we have so seriously and destructively altered the Earth's landscape that these creatures can no longer survive in their natural habitats.

We've laid waste to forests from Latin America to Asia and Africa where these primates have lived and evolved, and where they are now perishing.

The larger, global impact of this kind of massive forest destruction equals one of the greatest causes of global climate change - which finally has captured the public's attention and is causing alarm.

Twenty percent of greenhouse gas emissions that are accelerating global warming come from tropical forest destruction.

In fact, deforestation makes Indonesia (one of the world's three richest countries for primates) the third leading emitter of greenhouse gases.

Shrinking world

Habitat loss is the most serious threat to primates, closely followed by relentless hunting of some species to supply a luxury exotic meat market and for use in traditional medicines.

Deforestation (Image: AP)
If primates are telling us to rescue them, they are also sending us a message that will help us rescue ourselves

In fact, in some places primates are literally being eaten to extinction.

It is horrific to see these animals in the open air bush meat markets, being grilled on fire pits and sometimes even being blowtorched to remove their hair, their faces frozen in final screams of anguish.

Forests where primates have historically occurred rely on these keystone species to remain healthy, productive ecosystems.

Many monkeys and apes eat the forest fruit and are the primary seed dispersers. A forest that loses its primates becomes a forest without seedlings, unable to regenerate and thrive.

That in turn has a direct impact on people who live in or near these forests and rely on the forest resources for many essential needs.

There is plenty at stake for the entire planet if primates become extinct. And that's not to mention our undeniable affection for these intelligent, fascinating creatures. We can see, and hear, ourselves in them.

Mountain gorilla (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Mountain gorillas have been caught in the crossfire of a land dispute

Kanzi and his sister Panbanisha, both born at a university research centre and raised by researchers, now live at Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where they would be found naturally, bonobos are increasingly threatened, largely due to habitat loss and hunting.

An increase in targeted local and international conservation efforts will be essential to help primates make it through this extinction crisis.

We must help developing nations where many of these primates live identify economic development alternatives that will conserve, rather than destroy forests.

Local people must be consulted and actively involved in finding the solutions that work for them and provide immediate and essential needs for their families.

If primates are telling us to rescue them, they are also sending us a message that will help us rescue ourselves.

Russell A. Mittermeier is president of Conservation International and chairman of global conservation group IUCN's Species Survival Commission's Primate Specialist Group

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Russell Mittermeier? Are we failing to heed the warning of declining primate populations? Is the world destroying their habitats and eating them to extinction? Does it really matter if humans' closest living relatives disappear from the face of the Earth?

We have to make sure that we protect our environment in order to make sure that they survive
prudence lugendo, Dar es salaam/ Tanzania

We've become a cancer on the planet. Our whole system is designed to consume and consume.Population needs to be controlled to give room for everything else.We would do that to any other species if it got out of control and we end up losing so much when these and other species are gone.It doesn't say much about humanity and we're supposed to be the intelligent ones.
Jim, Sydney,Australia

As a species we are completely out of balance with nature. Our 'needs' seem to override any other considerations. I really believe that one thing we need to do as a species is something to address our population growth. All the time the human population continues to grow at the rate it is, I really can't see how much can change. But, in the long run, I do believe that nature will resolve this problem.
Steve, Faversham, England

Journalists and newspapers (BBC included) have been nothing but remiss in misrepresenting "news". We are bombarded with "news" everyday but what we actually need to know is relegated to the not-so-important pages. When are these articles going to be front page?? Thats what I want to know...
Kelly M, New Zealand

Just another example of mankind's complete stupidity. When is the human race going to realise that the sole cause of all its problems is one of mass overpopulation and "head in the sand greed". One thing is for certain, we are heading for mass extinction faster (and along with) millions of other species on this planet. We are a disgrace
Andy Morphet, Cheshire, England

Thank you for bringing awareness to those too busy to have time to think about such serious issues. Our planet is precious and so are all living things on mother earth. Blessings to those out their fighting for the survival of all things big and small!
Jacqueline Syverson, Seattle, Wa. USA

Whoever named our species Homo Sapiens?

Stupidens would be more appropriate.
Skeptic, Bognor Regis

This is a disaster of the first order, one of many, and is a consequence of a wider human malaise: the inability of human social structures in the large to do anything constructive whatever about strategically important matters --- those that are not to do with interactions with other social structures --- until those strategically important matters become tactically urgent in the most obvious way. Even then the amount of action taken seems to depend only upon the immediate physical impact upon people. The text "After all, what has a monkey done for you lately?" in the article is written in implicit recognition of this state of affairs. In this light I can give odds-on that we will lose most primate species. If we can store DNA and other biological samples theoretically sufficient to resurrect them, then that at least offers the possibility of some sort of future recovery if all else fails.
Carl, Minneapolis, MN USA

Somehow news like this upsets me more than the usual murder/war/corruption headlines that we are all so used to. We are the most destructive force on this planet, and are slowly driving ourselves and every other species towards complete and total extinction. We as a species need to admit our ignorance and get over our petty differences and greed, for too long have we been stagnantly stuck in a perpetual state of adolesence. All of our actions have consequences and we are all dependent on this planet that we live. Our Mother Earth is terminally ill and instead of protecting it, we are the cancer
Stephen Dooley, Belfast, Antrim Northern Ireland

We are 'humanists': We have the right to have as many children as we like and cover the world like a plague. It's not animal habitat; it's a greenfield site for exploitation and development. How dare you people start caring about animals?
Oliver, Reading, UK

Man is an ignorant over greedy primate who has lost site of how to live with nature. Man thinks civilisation is a process of monetary exchange and commerce. Man will cause his own extinction sooner than he knows, and he will be ignorant of the fact, too busy making money, until its too late.
Kevin, Raleigh, NC, USA (Previously Oxford UK)

We should be clear why the primates are under threat of extinction. It is nothing to do with 'Climate change', it is because their habitat is being destroyed due among other reasons to the response to the 'threat of global warming'. By cutting down old growth forest (which does not soak up additional carbon) to plant new plantations to take advantage of the absurd Carbon trading schemes or for growing biofuel crops, habit is being destroyed.

As stated in the article, any help that the developed world give to the developing world should encourage the conservation of forest's not their destruction as seems to be the case at present.
Hugh Scott, Ballyclare

The human population simply must find a way to live sustainably with the rest of the life on the planet. The great challenge now, it seems, is there are so many people, all with needs, and so many living in poverty. They won't put a primate before themselves. And they also aren't online reading about the world's problems. Many probably believe primates are plentiful and fine, until they find no more to hunt. In the last 50 years the human population has exploded and just about all other species have declined or even disappeared. About 300 - 500 tigers remain in the wild. 7,000,000,000 people and 300 tigers. Clearly the weight is on us to save these and other species in this generation. We need worldwide, cooperative laws and enforcement to do so. Countries work together to feed people of the world. They must now work together to save what remains of natural ecosystems -- including the oceans, where 90% of large fish are gone, fished away by airplane spotters and caught in e!

normous nets that wipe out whole schools, something you can watch on fishing channels as if it's great sport. The time to act and work together has come, worldwide.
j fischer, Washington DC, USA

How do you get across to this world's political leaderships who have no credentials except a pin-striped suit and a total ignorance of the planet that reality is something they had better get to grips with; and, begin to take advise from those more educated, and knowledgeable than themselves.
Robert Sinclair Shand, Wick

This is the result of greed. Whilst we wring our hands in despair we shout that we pay too much tax! We amass more wealth than we need, competing with each other so that we can lead more oppulent lifestyles, regardless of the consequences. If we don't even care about each other it's not likely we're going to care for animals is it? Capitalism just doesn't work, we need to move to a system where the needs of the many, and of our world, is not outweighed by the greed of the few.
John Rampton, Poole, UK

I am pessimatic about the future of primates. Habitat destruction in most Asian countries poses increasing threat to primates. Unstainable logging for timbers and clearing forests for urban development are driving primates to the verge of extinction. The policy of maximizing economic growth even at the expense of huge environmental cost is not uncommon in most developing countries. They admire the success of China's econmic reform and adopt 'Devlopment first, treatment later'model. The culture of eating wild animals still prevails in some Asian countries. Education is the only way of averting this uncivilized practice but it may take generations to work. The question is can these lovely creatures struggle for that long before the become extinct?
Ho Kin Wa, Hong Kong

Than you for this enlightening news, it is 100% true that people are responsible for the decline of our cousins, it is high time the world should have some sense of humanity and rescue the primates just like the efforts Jane Goodall who set up chimp sanctuary at olpejeta conservancy in Kenya.
Noelolweny, Kisumu, kenya

Re Louise Proulx's comments, i totally agree. It breaks my heart to read articles like this but just makes me more determined that i will make a difference, as much as i can. However i have no comprehension of what it is like to live in Asia, for example. Do they even know what impact they are having on our environment and other species who should be SHARING our earth? Perhaps mass educational reform on such issues is needed?
Ali, UK

Political correctness will kill us all. Everybody knows the only answer to this problem, but nobody talks about it. All we have to do to kill animal life (and finally ourselves) is to continue to mutiply. Loss of habitat is the main monkey killer, is it not? But people destroy forests not for sport or pleasure, they have to survive. So there you go, either rigid population control or... But how many of you out there are willing to give up their right to have as many children as they like?
Taly Kin, Rostov; Russia

There is much that is both correct and important in this article. What a pity then that the nonsense about CO2 causing global warming had to be brought into it. I fear that some of the good work which environmentalists do and real potential catastrophies which they warn about will be discredted when the global warming scam is finally exposed.
Mike Owens, York

We just have to wait our turn to extinct... Soon or later...
Hartono, Jakarta, Indonesia

My heart sinks to hear this news. A rational course to protect our planet's climate and our livelihood would be to protect forests from further deforestation. The politics of this world will consume it all. I agree with Russell Mittermeier and hope citizens of the world unite before it is all history.
William Evans, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA

The disappearing primate problem is more than people torturing monkeys or cutting down trees because they are too stupid to understand how beneficial forests are to the earth as an ecosystem. Just about every species of primate is found in a developing nation, amongst people who do not have the luxury of nascar/air-travel/meat diets. If your survival was dependent on money from bush meat or lumber, you would have a much different opinion about the whole situation. Why don't we look at the grim prospects for primates as a call to alleviate world wide poverty. The only people who need to wake up are people exactly like me who are sitting at their computers- over privileged, and wiling to share their opinions, but not their time to help slow the degradation of the quality of life around the world.
Holly Krohn, United States

Cause and effect of a burgeoning human population, usualy in areas of low resources, and its ever growing effect on Primates and the rest of Nature seems a taboo subject. Its fine for the West to limit by abortion, to take the blame for Climate Change. But not fashionable to ask the Third World to limit its family numbers.
Eric Brown, Newport. Wales

Human beings have brought nothing but pain greed and destruction to this planet. The sooner homo-sapiens become extinct the better the chances of survival for earth and its remaining species.
nick spry, Penzance

In my opinion humans have been so scared, divided, brainwashed into inaction and to act as individuals that feel powerless to act that things get neglected. Until the human race is educated into realizing that all humans, animals, ecosystems are all interconected for the best of all life and our planet all these tragic episodes will just seem as a seperate detatched issue that has less importance than its real seriousness.
Adrian Moffat, Besançon France

Hey wake up ! We are not decended from apes. If they are 98.5% simililar how did they change "overtime into humans" ? Why are they not changing right now ? It amazes me that learned people still believe in this tuf. It is so much common sense that that God created it all with intellignet design. Not morphing. He also had man take "dominion" over the earth. Some times that is good sometimes bad.
Ken , Colbert, WA USA

Louise Proulx wrote: "How people can torture these poor creatures like they have no brain, no nerve-endings, no feeling, is beyond me. How can people think that if we wipe out these creatures, that us humans and our planet, will be "just fine", leaves me speechless."

We should hardly be surprised that this travesty is occurring. We have, and I don't know any other way to put it, created a pervasive culture of death that seems hell bent on destroying everything that gets in the way of fulfilling the selfish desires of a particular group of people who otherwise consider themselves responsible and enlightened. Our closest primate cousins are suffering in slow motion the same fate that befalls millions of tiny human beings - unseen, unwanted, and inconvenient. As Mother Teresa lamented years ago, "If a mother can kill the child in her own womb, what is left of the West to save?" What, indeed?
Victor Panlilio, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

It is utterly horrific. The comment, "After all, what has a monkey done for you lately?" makes a telling point. This is precisely the attitude of many people. They see things only in terms of themselves, ie what use is it? But animals have a right to life totally independent of their utility. If there were no humans on Earth (not such a bad idea)animals would still have an importance in and of themselves.

I am not a religious person but I would like to see religious authorities, all of them, take a moral lead by instructing their flocks and pointing out that such behaviour is, literally, sinful and not pleasing to God. I also encourage celebrities and anyone with influence to do the same. Whatever works.

The behaviour and attitudes described in this article are vile. Completely evil.
Ricardo Cabeza, Santiago, Chile

Its really very simple folks. You want a nice air conditioned home, cars to drive around with, food grown specially for you and hauled to your supermarket, it all cots money. The more money you have the better the quality of your life. If you have logging contracts from your government, drilling rights for oil, a monopoly on medical care and supplies or gasoline distribution, you make a lot of money. You, your wife and children enjoy the good life. Now are you going to gve it all up because monkeys and gorillas in the jungles are threatened with extinction?

Don't make me laugh!
RFM, Deerfield, USA

This has been going on for some time, but it seems that the pace of destruction is now starting to be noticed by a wider audience. I am deeply saddened by some of the species reports prepared by IUCN, such as of the Hainan Gibbon, and I am sure may people do really care. Sadly, the people who exercise the most power over what happens to the forests (ie. government officials, businessmen and corporations) are probably little interested. Perhaps the best we can hope is for conservation organisations to buy large blocks of forest, or to continue lobbying governments and work with them to establish more reserves.
panthera_tigris, Middlesex

Thank you for providing this information. I guess awareness is the first step to making changes. What is the conservation plan and who is responsible for it? How can people contribute to preventing the consequences to our shortsightedness? How can we spread this information enough that we move on to the phase of action and begin to make a difference?
Maria Pelova, Yellowknife, NT, Canada

Though the news is terrible indeed, I'm delighted and encouraged that so many people are taking interest in efforts to help. If you want to help, get involved with or donate to groups like the Bonobo Conservation Initiative or the Wildlife Conservation Society. We can and must do better.
Mark Relyea, Hartford, CT

I don't know what all the fuss is about?

Let Evolution takes its course.

The experts keep telling us that man is merely another animal, so let us [man] continue to evolve, and do it by being the fittest and the strongest, and if, it means the weaker "apes" have to die-out so we can evolove into being better animals, so be it!
paul., Bolton

This is a mess,it has been for the last fifty years. When there are birds who mimic the sound made by chainsaws you know you are drinking at the last chance saloon.

Frankly and excusing the pun I do not give a monkeys about humankind. We are a blight upon this planet, an imbalance of nature.

I often read comments on web pages replying to views such as the one I express. Comments that ask if animals are more important than human progress. The answer remains the same from me, animal species are more important, they are still in the majority and have a track record of not mining the planets resources to make junk that is soon discarded into holes in the ground or burnt.

The sooner we fail the better for the planet and its remaining species, we are like a virus here.
Ian, Manchester, England

A declining primate population is a very serious indicator that human society is destroying the very ecosystem that all life on Earth needs to survive. So, yes, it does matter if these primate cousins are wiped out. As Russell points out, they are part of an interconnected web of life that will be unravelled very quickly if the balance point is tipped too far. We are tipping that balance point, and the reason for this is that we have distanced ourselves, disconnected if you will, from the life systems that sustain us. As a group we therefore have no concept of maintaining the balance by allowing an ecosystem to replenish itself; we simply strip it bare. So-called primitive cultures, such as the Native Americans, were aware of this need for balance, because it was in their own interest to preserve the living systems around them. It is in our interest too.
Liz Elliott, Woking, UK

Human beings have never hesitated to kill members of our own primate species in war, violence, genocide, murder, or any other such activity. Why would anyone expect us to spare any other species of primate?
Greg, Washington, DC

We are the shame of the animal kingdom. My hopes for a "soft landing" as we move toward sustainability are grim. We'll be lucky (maybe clever) if we avoid run away greenhouse feedback (methane sea ice, tundra melt, ice to open water) and kill most everything. But the species lost looks, today, undefendable. The latest great extinction is upon us and nascar/costco/air-travel/meat-diet are all time favorites.

So we keep trying. Thanks for your conservation efforts and press coverage. We're farming in San Luis Obispo (Food not Lawns) at households and riding our bikes. Our little part.
Greg Junell, San Luis Obispo CA USA

Humans use primates for medical testing because they are extremely similar to us genetically. If we are degrading the Earth's life support systems to the extent that our genetic cousins are dying "en mass" then it should be obvious that our species' days are numbered too. Politicians must wake up and act now - Brown/Cameron/Miliband, who cares? - Everyone, just do something to prevent this catastrophe now!
Leyton Williams-Davies, Pontypool, Wales, UK

I agree wholeheartedly on this issue. We aren't taking care of anything and most of the human race turns a blind eye or is just inherently ignorant. Its lamentable that we don't do anything for anyone except care about our existance, and even then we don't do a great job of that either.
Andrew, Denver, CO USA

This news, is earth-shattering. How people can torture these poor creatures like they have no brain, no nerve-endings, no feeling, is beyond me. How can people think that if we wipe out these creatures, that us humans and our planet, will be "just fine", leaves me speechless. I just want to help - and I want the humans of this earth to wake up. I feel sick to hear such horrible news. Thank you for putting this out there - I hope it makes everyone wake up and take positive action to save our primates.
Louise Proulx, Wayland, MA USA

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific