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Friday, 12 May, 2000, 13:47 GMT 14:47 UK
Dire outlook for many primates
orang infant and parent
Young orang-utans are targeted by poachers
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Scientists say the survival of almost a quarter of the world's primate species is endangered by human activities.

The primates - apes, monkeys and lemurs - are genetically closer to humans than any other creatures.

The World Conservation Union says 88 of the 600 primate species are endangered to some degree.

And 50 more species are now critically endangered, and could become extinct within a few decades.

Several hundred primate experts from conservation groups, research organisations and zoos have been meeting in the US to discuss the growing problem.

Gay Reinartz, of the Milwaukee Zoological Society, told the meeting that severely threatened primates included the bonobos, or pygmy chimpanzees, found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Forestry threat

"The bonobos are caught right in the middle of what some are calling Africa's first world war. The fighting is splitting their range in half."

infant gorilla and stethoscope
Apes are not prolific breeders
She said some of the animals were being killed and eaten by refugees who had been driven into the forests by the fighting.

But she said the major current threat to the bonobo was forestry and habitat loss, with loggers waiting for the fighting to end so that they could return to the hardwood forests where the apes lived.

Factors compounding the threats to some primates' survival include their low reproductive rate - many apes produce only three or four offspring in their entire lives.

They are also vulnerable to the fragmentation of their habitat by logging, mining and other forms of human development.

This can leave small groups of animals isolated, and at greater risk of extinction because of loss of genetic diversity.

Ape meat prized

Elsewhere in Congo, in the Virunga mountains on the Ugandan border, the mountain gorillas face a heightened threat from weapons diverted from the war by local people.

Inogwabini Bila-Issia, a Congo researcher, said: "They think if you kill a gorilla you become very strong and your power as a man grows."

The country's population of lowland gorillas is also endangerd by the war.

Russell Mittermeier, the head of Conservation International, told the meeting that meat from apes fetched a higher price than other types of bushmeat sold in central Africa.

The UK-based World Society for the Protection of Animals has been monitoring the bushmeat trade in the region since 1994.

gorilla and child cross road
Human incursions imperil many primates
Jonathan Pearce, of WSPA, told BBC News Online: "We've seen no major improvements since we began the monitoring.

"Partly it's a lack of political will by the governments concerned, though often they don't have a lot of control of what happens.

"But industrialised countries channel a lot of investment into the area, often into very important wildlife habitats. We must have much greater scrutiny of how the money is spent."

Taking the orphans

Another great ape, the orang-utan, is under growing pressure.

The meeting heard that the forest fires in Indonesia had hit the animals badly, and that they were at risk as well from the illegal pet trade, which often killed the mothers in order to take the infants.

Sumatra is estimated to have 6,000 orang-utans left, and to be losing them at 1,000 a year.

Borneo, thought to have had 60,000 animals in 1980, now has somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000.

Other endangered primates include the golden lion tamarins of Brazil, the woolly spider monkeys of Peru and the lemurs of Madagascar.

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24 Aug 99 | Sci/Tech
Loggers threaten orang-utans
11 Feb 99 | Sci/Tech
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