Letters to Nature

Nature 422, 611-614 (10 April 2003) | doi:10.1038/nature01566; Received 18 December 2002; Accepted 17 March 2003; Published online 6 April 2003

Catastrophic ape decline in western equatorial Africa

Peter D. Walsh1, Kate A. Abernethy2,3, Magdalena Bermejo4, Rene Beyers5, Pauwel De Wachter6, Marc Ella Akou6, Bas Huijbregts6, Daniel Idiata Mambounga7, Andre Kamdem Toham6, Annelisa M. Kilbourn5, Sally A. Lahm8, Stefanie Latour5, Fiona Maisels5,9, Christian Mbina5, Yves Mihindou5, Sosthène Ndong Obiang7, Ernestine Ntsame Effa7, Malcolm P. Starkey5,10, Paul Telfer2,11, Marc Thibault6, Caroline E. G. Tutin2,3, Lee J. T. White5 & David S. Wilkie5

  1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Guyot Hall, Princeton, New Jersey 08540, USA
  2. Centre International de Recherches Médicales, BP 769, Franceville, Gabon
  3. Department of Biological and Molecular Sciences, University of Stirling, Stirling FK9 4LA, UK
  4. Departamento Biología Animal (Vertebrados), Facultad de Biología, Universidad de Barcelona, Avda. Diagonal 645, 08028 Barcelona, Spain
  5. Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx, New York, New York 10460-1099, USA
  6. WWF Central Africa Regional Program Office, BP 9144, Libreville, Gabon
  7. Ministère de l'Economie Forestière, des Eaux, de la Pêche chargé de l'Environnement et de la Protection de la Nature, Direction de la Faune et de la Chasse, BP 1128, Libreville, Gabon
  8. Institut de Recherche en Ecologie Tropicale, BP 13354, Libreville, Gabon
  9. Institute of Cell, Animal and Population Biology, Edinburgh University, Edinburgh EH9 3JT, UK
  10. Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, Downing Place, Cambridge CB2 3EN, UK
  11. New York University, Department of Anthropology, 25 Waverly Place, New York, New York 10003, USA

Correspondence to: Peter D. Walsh1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to P.D.W. (e-mail: Email: pwalsh@princeton.edu).

Because rapidly expanding human populations have devastated gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) and common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) habitats in East and West Africa, the relatively intact forests of western equatorial Africa have been viewed as the last stronghold of African apes1. Gabon and the Republic of Congo alone are thought to hold roughly 80% of the world's gorillas2 and most of the common chimpanzees1. Here we present survey results conservatively indicating that ape populations in Gabon declined by more than half between 1983 and 2000. The primary cause of the decline in ape numbers during this period was commercial hunting, facilitated by the rapid expansion of mechanized logging. Furthermore, Ebola haemorrhagic fever is currently spreading through ape populations in Gabon and Congo and now rivals hunting as a threat to apes. Gorillas and common chimpanzees should be elevated immediately to 'critically endangered' status. Without aggressive investments in law enforcement, protected area management and Ebola prevention, the next decade will see our closest relatives pushed to the brink of extinction.