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A planet without apes? Only five kinds of apes remain, and they all face possible extinction.


Viewers of the recent Hollywood blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes may be surprised to learn that before the earliest human ancestors arrived on the scene roughly 7 million years ago, apes really did rule the planet.

As many as 40 kinds roamed Eurasia and Africa between 10 and 25 million years ago. Today, only five types remain. Two live in Asia, the gibbon and orangutan; the chimpanzee, bonobo, and gorilla live in Africa. All five are endangered, several critically so. All face the possibility of extinction.

A decade ago, Congress authorized an effort to protect these apes through innovative conservation programs in Africa and Asia that combined taxpayer dollars with private money. But attempts to renew the Great Ape Conservation Fund have gotten stuck in Congress and may become a victim of the effort to rein in the federal budget deficit.

Hollywood's depiction of apes as cunning--if not conniving--creatures comes close to reality. Fifty years ago, Jane Goodall's observations in Africa of chimpanzees using tools and eating meat demonstrated just how similar apes are to humans. Subsequent fieldwork has underscored this point.

Orangutans fashion tools to extract seeds that are otherwise difficult to get at. Gorillas engage in conversational vocal exchanges. Male chimpanzees form coalitions to kill their neighbors and take over their territory. Gibbons, long thought to be monogamous, occasionally mate with individuals outside their group.

Our Closest Living Relatives

If all of this seems human, there's a good reason: Apes are our closest living relatives; in anatomy, genetics, and behavior, they are much more similar to us than they are to other animals.

Apes fascinate and captivate us like no other species. They are prime attractions at zoos, and scientists in disciplines ranging from anthropology to biology and psychology study them closely in captivity and in the wild. As our first cousins in the primate family, apes help us understand what makes us human.

I have been lucky to study all five kinds of apes during 33 years of fieldwork in Africa and Asia. When I look into the eyes of an ape, something stares back at me that seems familiar.

But as the human population expands, ape numbers continue to dwindle. In previous versions of Planet of the Apes films, greed and consumption by human-like apes threatened the world. In reality, it is these all-too-human traits that endanger apes.

Habitat destruction because of human activity--including logging, oil exploration, and farming--is the biggest concern. Hunting is another major problem, especially in West and Central Africa, where a thriving "bush meat" trade severely threatens African apes.

Poachers are now entering once-impenetrable forests on roads built for loggers and miners. Recently, periodic outbreaks of deadly diseases that can infect humans and apes, like Ebola, have begun to ravage populations of chimpanzees and gorillas.

The Great Ape Conservation Act, enacted in 2000, authorized the spending of $5 million annually over five years to help protect apes in the wild. The act was re-authorized in 2005 for another five years. The program matches public funds with private dollars to maximize the impact. Since 2006, for example, $21 million in federal dollars spent by the Great Ape Conservation Fund generated an additional $25 million in private grants and support from other governments.

Protecting Habitat

The federal money may not sound like much. But those dollars have gone a long way toward protecting apes in countries that are desperately poor and politically volatile. The money pays for protecting habitat, battling poachers, and educating local populations about the importance of these apes.

For instance, in Indonesia, where habitat loss threatens the few remaining populations of orangutans, money has been earmarked to block the conversion of forests to oil palm and rubber plantations.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to the extremely rare mountain gorilla, alternative fuels have been introduced to discourage the cutting of forests for charcoal production. In Gabon, the fund has paid for law-enforcement training for park rangers battling poachers. The list goes on.

In all last year, the Great Ape Conservation Fund helped to underwrite more than 50 programs in 7 Asian and 12 African countries. If Congress does not reauthorize the act, it could make it much harder to continue even the modest appropriations the great apes fund now receives.

A planet without apes is not sci-fi fantasy. If we do not take action now, sometime in the future, as Hollywood continues to produce sequels to the classic 1968 film, our children will ask with wonder, and perhaps anger, why we stood by idly while these remarkable creatures were driven to extinction.

Disappearing Act

Numbers of Great Apes remaining and where they live



How Many: 145,000

Where: Central Africa



How Many: 12,000

Where: Dem. Rep. of Congo



How Many: 330,000

Where: Coastal forest of West Africa and central Africa


How Many: 61,000

Where: Indonesia and Malaysia



How Many: Unknown (One subspecies has as few as 20 remaining)

Where: Southeast Asia, from Bangladesh to Indonesia



John C. Mitani is an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan.
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Author:Mitani, John C.
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 12, 2011
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