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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 May 2007, 15:03 GMT 16:03 UK
Great apes 'facing climate peril'
Baby orangutan (Sam Gracey, Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation)
Climate change may be putting great ape species at risk (Image courtesy of Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation)
Great apes are facing an "inevitable crisis" arising from climate change, a leading conservationist has warned.

Dr Richard Leakey said that growing pressure to switch from fossil fuels to biofuels could result in further destruction of the animals' habitats.

The chair of WildlifeDirect called for immediate action and proposed financial incentives to save forests from destruction as one possible solution.

He said: "Climate change will undoubtedly impact everything we know."

The implications for biodiversity are there for all to see
Dr Robert Leakey

The great apes - gorillas, chimps, bonobos and orangutans - are already under threat from habitat destruction, poaching, logging and disease.

The Great Apes Survival Project (Grasp), a United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) initiative, has warned that great apes are at risk of imminent extinction unless drastic action is taken.

Palm oils

In advance of a talk at the UK's Royal Geographical Society, Dr Leakey told journalists that climate threats now had to be added to the mix.

The former director of the Kenyan Wildlife Service said: "I am concerned about the pressures on the land as a result of changes to the climate, but also the pressures on the land in terms of people's reaction to climate change and the shift away from fossil fuels to biofuels."

The great apes: Status check

He said that "great swathes" of forest had already been destroyed in South Asia to make way for palm oil plantations, and this had had a dramatic impact on orangutans, which currently number 50,000.

Palm oil is used in vegetable oil, soaps, shampoos, industrial substances, but it has also been proposed as an alternative to fossil fuel.

Dr Leakey said the growing pressure to turn to biofuels such as palm oil could place the great apes' habitat in further peril.

He added: "People shrug their shoulders and say what are poor countries to do if they cannot exploit their natural resources, and I can understand this, but it is not sustainable the way it is going."

There is also evidence that deforestation would further drive climate change itself by raising the amount of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Dr Leakey said.

New incentives

Dr Leakey suggested "biodiversity credits" could be a possible solution.

"Being paid for not cutting down indigenous forests and getting credit for that is a further step that builds on the idea of getting paid for planting new forests," he explained.

"It does seem that we cannot stop development, but it does also seem that perhaps we can stop development where critical species are threatened, and perhaps there could be a price added to that."

Richard Leakey
Dr Leakey is a prominent conservationist in Kenya

He said that there could be creative ways to solve the problems that climate change could bring, but added that it was crucial that action was taken now.

Dr Leakey told journalists: "Could the great apes go because of climate change? Yes. Possibly not within our lifetime, but what about in 100 or 200 years?

"Climate change is measurable and is happening at rate that is almost unprecedented from what we know in previous history, and the implications for biodiversity are there for all to see."

Richard Leakey is a palaeo-anthropologist, responsible for extensive fossil finds related to human evolution, and renowned Kenyan conservationist. His parents, Louis and Mary Leakey, were prominent palaeontologists, finding and excavating key sites around Africa.

Biofuels: Green energy or grim reaper?
22 Sep 06 |  Science/Nature
Climate risk 'to million species'
07 Jan 04 |  Science/Nature
Genes record orangutans' decline
24 Jan 06 |  Science/Nature
Orangutans 'may die out by 2025'
12 Jan 04 |  Science/Nature
Climate fear for African elephant
07 May 05 |  Science/Nature
Declaration signed on great apes
12 Sep 05 |  Science/Nature
Apes 'extinct in a generation'
01 Sep 05 |  Science/Nature
Profile: Dr Richard Leakey
15 May 01 |  Africa

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