At meeting in Paris late last month, the United Nations warned that every one of the great ape species - gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans - is at risk of extinction, some soon, others within 50 years. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the meeting brought together conservation groups, donor governments and officials from range states in Asia and Africa to discuss ways to ensure the survival of the species.
Only 400,000 great apes remain in the wild. The western chimpanzee has already disappeared from Benin, Gambia and Togo. And the species' survival hangs in the balance in Ghana, where their numbers are down to between 300 and 500.
The plight of the western chimpanzee was just one of the topics on the agenda of the three-day emergency meeting.
The apes are under increasing threat of extinction from the loss of their habitats to logging operations, mining camps and road building. The apes are also illegally traded and hunted for bush meat.
The U.N. meeting produced a global work plan to help end poaching and to promote education and eco-tourism.
"We know that these are the essential things that we need to do," said Robert Hepworth, Deputy Director of Environmental Conventions with the United Nations Environment Program. "Whether it is to provide equipment to the national parks, or encouraging greater enforcement of borders to prevent smuggling of live animals, juveniles or to deal with the bush meat trade or the important monitoring aspects. We have to ensure that we use the best possible technology, trying to bring all of the various activities together to try to ensure that these animals and these species have a viable future."
Mr. Hepworth is encouraged by the global partnership that has formed to address the issue. It includes two U.N. agencies, four multilateral environment agreements and dozens of different non-governmental organizations in partnership with the 23 countries in Africa and Asia, which are home to the great apes.
Mr. Hepworth says that partnership needs financial support to fund conservation and habitat-protection programs.
"We set ourselves a minimum target of $25 million," said Mr. Hepworth. "I have to say that the feeling you get in the corridors of the meeting quite rightly is that that figure is only a beginning. We need that to make significant progress with the work plan, but we may need a much larger sum, certainly in hundreds of millions if we going to guarantee to finish the job of saving these animals."
Ian Redman, who heads the technical support team for the Great Apes Survival Project, which is coordinated under the United Nations Environment Program and UNESCO, says great apes are a keystone species and that that future of the planet is intimately linked to their survival.
"They can be described along with elephants as the 'gardeners' of the forest," explained Mr. Redman. "And we are in a period of time where we are suddenly valuing forests not just because they are the repositories for so many potentially useful chemicals and because they have such high bio-diversity. But because we are trying to stabilize our planet's climate, and we need the forests to absorb the carbon dioxide that we produce by burning fossil fuels.
"And just when you start to value forests, is it a good idea to shoot the gardeners, the species that actually look after the forest?" asked Mr. Redman. "They may not be doing this consciously, but by eating the fruit and disbursing the seeds and by breaking the branches and pruning the trees and by building their nests in the trees they are creating light gaps to allow sunlight to the forest floor for those seeds to germinate. So in a very practical way not only do we need to save forests for the great apes to live in but, we need to save great apes so that the forests will continue to be healthy."
Mr. Redman said that the survival of the great apes makes good ecological, economic and ethical sense. He says the U.N. meeting caught the attention of donor nations and that a ministerial meeting on great apes in late 2004 will try to build on that support.