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Great apes' African stronghold under grave threat ^ | April 7th, 2003 | Jeff Hecht

Posted on 04/07/2003 8:55:27 AM PDT by Sabertooth


Great apes' African stronghold under grave threat

12:21 07 April 03 news service

The bush meat trade and the Ebola virus are devastating great ape populations in west Africa - their last major refuge

The first major survey for 20 years shows commercial hunters are decimating gorilla and chimpanzee populations near urban centres and logging camps, while Ebola is wiping out large gorilla groups living in remote forests.

Bessie, a western gorilla, suckles her infant at Mbeli clearing in northern Congo (Image: Richard Parnell)

The combination could push our closest animal relatives to the brink of extinction in the wild in just a decade, warns Peter Walsh of Princeton University, New Jersey, who led the study.

Gabon and the Republic of the Congo are home to most of the world's remaining gorillas and common chimps (Pan troglodytes). The last survey of ape sleeping nests in 1981 to 1983 showed dense ape populations across Gabon.

But new surveys conducted between 1998 and 2002 show the average population density has dropped by 56 percent. And that estimate is deliberately conservative, Walsh warns.

Hidden problem

Satellite photos of Gabon show only modest deforestation, which had been thought the worst threat to the great apes. But big problems were found hiding under the trees.

Selective logging preserves tree cover, but the roads built to remove the wood give hunters easy access to ape populations. Losses were alarmingly heavy in areas where ape populations had been highest. They reached up to 99 percent in the Minkebe forest area in northeast Gabon.

Walsh urges "radical intervention" to stop hunting. "If we don't do something, in 10 to 20 years there will be just isolated pockets of gorillas left," Walsh told New Scientist.

However, he thinks hunting could be easier to stop than Ebola. The disease can cause catastrophic drops. For example, a group of 143 gorillas in the Lossi area of Congo was reduced to seven in a matter of months by the virus.

Yet what causes the outbreaks remains unknown. Many suspect ecological changes that increase human contact with an as-yet-unidentified animal that harbours the virus.

But Walsh thinks it may instead be an epidemic disease that emerges when gorillas exceed a threshold population density. The difference is critical because the models suggest different ways to stop Ebola's spread, so Walsh says tests of the theories should be a top priority.

Critically endangered

The average annual decline of 4.7 per cent is bad enough to move both gorillas and chimpanzees from "endangered" to "critically endangered", Walsh says. The latter designation requires a projected loss of 80 per cent of the population in three generations.

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The current trend will hit that number in 33 years - 1.5 generations for chimps and about two for gorillas. And Walsh thinks the loss has accelerated in the past decade, making matters even worse.

Apes are important, says Sandy Harcourt of the University of California at Davis. "If they go, then we've lost a very, very direct connection to the rest of the animal world."

He agrees that the problem is grave, but says he is "a little less worried" about prospects for recovery if the animals can be protected effectively. Mountain gorillas have survived several wars. "The situation is way worse than we ever thought, but very far from hopeless," Harcourt says.

Journal reference: Nature (DOI:10.1038/nature01566)


Jeff Hecht

TOPICS: Front Page News; Miscellaneous; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: africawatch; bushmeat; chimpanzee; ebola; enviralists; gorilla

1 posted on 04/07/2003 8:55:28 AM PDT by Sabertooth
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To: *Enviralists; *AfricaWatch
2 posted on 04/07/2003 9:00:32 AM PDT by Libertarianize the GOP (Ideas have consequences)
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To: Sabertooth
Grape Ape!
3 posted on 04/07/2003 9:12:57 AM PDT by Fury
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To: Fury
Grape Ape!

You just gave your age away! :-)

4 posted on 04/07/2003 11:21:40 AM PDT by PistolPaknMama (kaboom!)
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