A combination of natural and man-made threats is killing gorillas and chimpanzees in Central Africa, and experts say $30 million is needed for special programs to save some of mankind's closest relatives from disappearing.
An action plan drafted by more than 70 primatologists and other experts who met in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, in May designates 12 areas for emergency programs intended to increase security against illegal hunting, protect great apes and tropical forests from logging, and slow the spread of the Ebola virus in the region.
Called the Regional Action Plan for Conservation of Chimpanzees and Gorillas in Western Equatorial Africa, the document seeks a multilateral response to the threats to populations of the western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) and the central African chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes troglodytes) that share the same habitat in six countries.
The plan represents an urgent appeal to the international community for immediate action, before the damage is irreversible.
While the experts were unable to establish precise population figures for the gorillas and chimpanzees, they determined that recent Ebola outbreaks, bushmeat hunting and logging have almost wiped out some populations. The action plan noted that apes reproduce slowly, with limited capacity to recover from decimated populations.
"This devastating mix of threats leaves us on the brink of losing some of our closest living relatives," said Russell A. Mittermeier, president of Conservation International and chairman of the Primate Specialist Group of IUCN-The World Conservation Union's Species Survival Commission. ''Protecting gorillas and chimps is not just important in its own right. These animals are also flagship species, important symbols for vast areas of forest that are among the richest on Earth. Protecting them protects many other spec ies as well."
The continuing spread of the Ebola virus through the region is a particular threat, with devastating effects on ape populations. Ebola spreads through contact with blood and other body fluids, putting bushmeat hunters and others who might handle carcasses of infected animals at risk.
"If we find ways to protect apes from the Ebola virus, we also will protect humans," the action plan concludes.
The action plan designated 12 sites in five countries - Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, Central African Republic, and Equatorial Guinea - that require immediate help. Seven "exceptional sites" have ape populations exceeding 2,000 in a large area (8,232 to 41,900 square kilometres), while five "important sites" have ape populations of 500 to 2000 individuals in a site covering 1,219 to 9,011 square kilometres. Two other areas labelled "priority survey sites" have known ape populations that require additional study to assess the numbers and determine boundaries to promote ape conservation.
"New types of collaborations are going to be needed, as the fate of apes in Central Africa relies not only on addressing the typical issues of poaching and habitat destruction, but also the problems of the rapid spread of disease," said Christophe Boesch of the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation, an author of the action plan.
According to the action plan, a series of programs needed to halt declines in ape populations will cost just under $30 million. The measures include anti-poaching activities, improved monitoring and response to Ebola outbreaks, increased training, and tourism development.
"As dire as the threats are to the survival of great apes, it's important for the world to know that this is not a lost cause," said Emma Stokes of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Congo Program, another author of the action plan. "It will take a tremendous amount of work and dedication from a variety of conservation groups, government agencies and do nors, but we still have a chance to save these animals."
The Brazzaville meeting was organized by the Centre International de Recherches M�dicales de Franceville (CIRMF), Conservation International (CI), the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation (WCF), and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Additional funding came from the Great Ape Conservation Fund of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the UNEP/UNESCO Great Ape Survival Project (GRASP), the Cleveland Park Zoo, the Primate Action Fund, and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.