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UNEP spokesman, Nick Nuttall
"We are very close to the edge on this one"
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Sunday, 20 May, 2001, 23:52 GMT 00:52 UK
Great apes in peril
Congo BBC
Congo's gorillas are threatened by mining
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

The United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) has launched a programme to save the world's remaining great apes.

The clock is standing at one minute to midnight for the great apes

Unep director
It says time is running out, with predictions that some species could virtually disappear within a decade.

Unep hopes to involve every part of the UN in the effort to arrest the apes' slide towards extinction.

It puts the cost of its initiative at more than $1m.

Our closest relatives

The programme is called Grasp (the Great Apes Survival Project). Launching it in Washington DC, US, Unep's executive director, Dr Klaus Toepfer, said: "A global effort is now needed to combat this disaster.

Planet of the apes
Some apes share more than 98% of the DNA found in humans
Threats include hunting, illegal logging and war
They contribute to forest regeneration and medical research
"The clock is standing at one minute to midnight for the great apes. Some estimates expect that in as little as five to 10 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% of the DNA found in humans, die out."

'Goodwill is not enough'

Urging business and industry to support the project, which is being started with $150,000 from Unep, Dr Toepfer said: "Goodwill is not enough. We need funding and support from all sectors of society."

An orang-utan with a rescuer in Indonesia AP
People need to be educated about the apes' environmental contribution
Robert Hepworth, a Unep biodiversity specialist, said: "To get the project really up and running will require well over $1m.

"But the world has a special duty to save the great apes, and by saving them we will also be saving a whole raft of animal and plant species."

Grasp will work in key areas in Africa and South East Asia which are home to the apes - gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos (pygmy chimps) and orang-utans.

A need for education

The main threats to their survival include war, the bushmeat trade, loss of habitat, and poaching for trophies and souvenirs.

Heather Eves, of the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force, one of the groups working with Unep, called for better education.

She said: "Where great ape tourism has been developed, for instance in Uganda's Bwindi and Kibale Forest national parks, the animals have become to local communities an important source of revenue worth more alive than dead.

The great apes are the gardeners of the African and South East Asian forests

Great ape campaigner
But too few people are aware of the role gorillas play in regenerating woodlands by dispersing seeds and pruning trees. Along with elephants, the great apes are the gardeners of the African and South East Asian forests."

Other groups working with Grasp are the Ape Alliance, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Born Free Foundation, Fauna and Flora International, and WWF, the global environment campaign.

Ian Redmond, of the Ape Alliance, said: "During this year thousands more orang-utans have been killed or driven from their forests by illegal loggers. Thousands more gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos have been killed for bushmeat.

"Thousands of rangers and wardens have lacked the means to do their job to protect even those apes living in national parks.

New threats

"And new threats are emerging. In the Democratic Republic of Congo miners seeking the highly prized mineral tantalite, or coltan, have been pouring into the Biega national park and Okapi wildlife reserve."

Robert Hepworth said the UN's World Health Organisation should be concerned about the apes' fate because of their importance in medical research.

And the UN Development Programme had a potential interest because of eco-tourism.

Grasp funding will include equipping rangers, linking fragmented patches of habitat, and telling people how valuable the apes are to their communities.

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See also:

28 Mar 01 | Sci/Tech
Campaign demands EU ape research ban
13 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Animal testing appeal sparks protest
12 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Dire outlook for many primates
11 Feb 99 | Sci/Tech
Apes in line for legal rights
27 Jan 01 | Sci/Tech
Gorillas do well despite war
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