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Facing up to endangered apes

A United Nations-sponsored meeting in Paris this week will indicate whether humanity has the wherewithal to save our closest cousins in the animal kingdom from extinction.

As any orang-utan who has looked a human straight in the eyes will know, we have something, well, quite orang-utanish about us. Evidence increasingly points to the great apes —orang-utans, gorillas and chimpanzees — having a range of 'human' attributes, such as culture, emotion and complex social interaction, not to mention being highly intelligent and a marvel to watch. If we allow the great apes to go extinct, we will create a missing link in the understanding of who we are and where we came from.

But all three genera of great apes are climbing up the scale of extinction risk, with most populations somewhere between 'endangered' and 'critically endangered'. Behind these tags lies the stark reality that numbers are now dropping precipitously. Unless we act soon, every species of great ape will be extinct in the wild in our childrens' lifetimes.

Gorillas live in ten African countries, orang-utans on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra in Indonesia and East Malaysia, and chimpanzees in 21 countries in Africa. But by 2030, just 10% of virgin habitat for apes in Africa will still exist, and less than 1% of it for orang-utans.

Destruction of forests is one cause of the decline; hunting for bush-meat or for the live-animal trade is another. And apes have the misfortune to tend to live in war zones, which hampers conservation efforts. Even in remote areas, away from their number-one enemy — us — apes are being wiped out by the Ebola virus (see Nature 422, 551; 200310.1038/422551a).

In Paris on 26–28 November, representatives of African and Asian states with ape populations are due to meet with scientists under the auspices of the United Nations' Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP). They hope to thrash out a conservation strategy for the great apes, endorsed by everyone with an interest in their survival.

There is certainly no shortage of interest. Numerous organizations exist to save them. On paper, great apes are already protected by law in every country they inhabit, national action plans exist, and the international ape trade is banned. But the numbers just keep dwindling.

The meeting's organizers acknowledge that action is needed. Existing conservation efforts are inadequately coordinated and too piecemeal, and projects are set up as funds become available, rather than as part of an overall strategy. The meeting will attempt to expand the ability of GRASP to oversee and implement such a strategy.

Another proposal is to create an International Great Ape Commission — recognized by established zoological bodies — to bring together the countries affected, donors, scientists and non-governmental organizations, to generate publicity for the cause, and to develop common plans and more rigorous systems for evaluating best practice in conservation approaches.

The attention that the meeting will bring to the issue is welcome. The United Nations reckons that a serious effort to lift the immediate extinction threat hanging over great ape populations would cost some US$25 million. It would be ironic if, just when humans have sequenced our own genome, we allowed a group of species that share almost 99% of it to go extinct.

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Facing up to endangered apes. Nature 426, 369 (2003).

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