Endangered great apes seek life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2000:

Illinois––Can another group seeking to save
wild African primates make a difference?
Already, more nonprofit would-be
saviours are trying to save nonhuman primates
than there are members of some rare
species jeopardized by logging and the bushmeat
Sketchy Panafrican News Agency
reports about the June 22 debut of Friends of
the Mountain Gorilla Society at the International
Conference Centre in Kampala,
Uganda, hint that it may be among a small
but growing number of African conservation
groups founded and run by Africans of
African descent. At deadline no other information
was available.

Barely 650 mountain gorillas
remain in the wild, in urgent need of local
friends. More than half dodge border-jumping
Rwandan and Congolese guerilla patrols
in the Bwindi National Forest and Mgahinga
National Park in western Uganda.
The rest dodge snares, bullets, and
landmines within strife-torn Rwanda and the
Congo, scene of a multinational conflict that
the New York Times describes as the first
African world war.
Amid more than a million human
casualties and several million starving
refugees, a gorilla, to a guerilla, is just
another potential corpse to strip of anything
that can be traded for food and ammunition.
A group formed to save gorillas,
on the other hand, is a statement of faith in
peace, hope, kindness, and generosity––
especially in Uganda, still struggling to
recover from the brutally selfish regimes of
dictators Milton Obote (1962-1971, 1980-
1986) and Idi Amin (1971-1980).
Explains filmmaker and former
Kenya Wildlife Service warden Simon
Trevor, “The Africanization of African
wildlife conservation does not mean we have
solved all problems. Far from it. We are still
dealing with all the same problems, all the
same endemic corruption, economic desperation,
and all of the other obstacles that keep
us from turning the corner while situations in
many parts of the continent keep going from
bad to worse. But when we finally have people
working on the problems who look and
sound like most other Africans, realizing
what a great treasure their wildlife is and
striving with great dedication to save it, we
can at least begin to hope that there will some
day be a corner to turn.”
As Friends of the Mountain Gorilla
Society came into being, leading U.S. media
(see page 21) ardently discussed and debated
the hypothesis of legal and ethical scholars
Stephen Wise and Peter Singer that great apes
including gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos,

and orangutans might soon be held by a
precedent-setting court to meet the tests
required for legal personhood. Such a ruling
would confer upon the great apes at
least the minimum legal rights recognized
on behalf of the mentally handicapped.
Already, on June 5, a two-justice
panel of the Kerala High Court in
Kochi, India, called nonrecognition of
animals’ rights a “legal anachronism”
which “must change” on behalf not only of
nonhuman primates, but also other intelligent
species (see page 13).
“Meat is murder”
Discussing the possible legal
rights and personhood of great apes may
seem pointless in regions where human
rights are barely recognized and thousands
of human lives are casually wasted every
day with firearms, machetes, and manipulated
Yet establishing the right of
great apes to life, liberty within their habitat,
and pursuit of happiness according to
the ways of their kind might also be done
parallel to establishing human rights.
In Cameroon and some other
African nations, as great ape advocate
Dale Peterson reports in his newly reissued
Visions of Calaban, the very word for
“animal” is “meat,” in both local languages
and pidgeon English. To save the
great apes or any other species, the definition
must be changed. Thus the animal
rights movement slogan “Meat is murder!”
might encapsule the last hope for wildlife.
Far-reaching theoretical strategies,
however, were not discussed much
at the Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species triennial meeting in
Nairobi, Kenya, during April. Concerns
about bushmeat were raised but not decisively
acted upon.
Neither did legal rights surface
as a possible wild primate conservation
strategy during a May 10-13 conference in
Lisle, Illinois, hosted by the Brookfield
Zoo, of Chicago, bringing together top
nonhuman primate conservationists from
12 nations.
The only good news coming out
of it, reported Associated Press science
writer Joseph B. Verrengia, was that no
nonhuman primate is known to have gone
extinct in the just ended 20th century.
Indeed, the number of recognized nonhuman
primate species roughly doubled,
with the discovery or reclassification of
235 new species and subspecies.
Even the number of known kinds
of great apes doubled. Mountain and lowland
gorillas were recognized as separate
species in 1902, now with five known
subspecies. Bonobos still more recently
were identified as a fully separate family,
not just “pygmy chimps.”
The bad news, explained William
Konstant of the World Conservation
Union, is that “Close to 20% [of all non –
human primates] stand a reasonable
chance of disappearing in the next 20 years
unless we take decisive action.”
At greatest risk among the great
apes are bonobos, whose only wild habitat
is within the Congo no-man’s-land.
“Unsupplied troops have taken
to hunting bonobos for food, and unprecedented
numbers of orphaned young bonobos
are showing up as pets in Kinshasa,
Congo’s capital,” reported C h i c a g o
T r i b u n e environment writer Laurie
Goering, summarizing remarks by
Milwaukee Zoo bonobo researcher Gay
Reinartz. “Worse,” Goering added, “half
of the bonobo’s rainforest territory has
been granted as logging concessions. The
war has temporarily reduced timbering,
but peace may bring a quick resumption.”
Lowland gorillas may only be
marginally more numerous. Mountain
gorillas are fewer, but their habitat is
higher, steeper, farther from the fighting
and more difficult to log.
Chimps too are in steep decline.
“At the turn of the last century
there were some two million wild chimpanzees
in Africa,” primatologist Jane
Goodall testified on May 18 in support of
HR 4320, the proposed Great Ape
Conservation Act. “When I began my
work at Gombe in 1960, there must have
been over a million. Today, at most
150,000 chimps remain. For other wild
primates, the situation is worse.”
Similar disaster has befallen
Asian great apes. Within the careers of
some living observers, the orangutan populations
of Sumatra and Borneo have fallen
by 90%––and by two-thirds just since
1990, amid habitat loss due to logging,
forest fires, and poaching. Just 20,000
orangutans remain in the wild. Their numbers
are falling by 1,000 per year, says
Brookfield Zoo director George Rabb. But
orangutans may outlast silvery gibbons, of
whom only 400 remain on Java.
Ninety-two nations have native
primates, but two-thirds of the species are
concentrated in just four nations: Brazil,
Madagascar, Indonesia, and the Congo.
The three former are among the
nations with the fastest-growing human
populations, and most pressure to exploit
their forests. That Madagascar and
Indonesia are island nations with limited
land space exascerbates the competition of
human and nonhuman primates for habitat.
“We have a crisis of such
immensity that I don’t believe most people
realize how bad it is,” City University of
New York primatologist John F. Oates told
Verenngia. “We have to stop sitting on
our hands. Jane Goodall has said that in
20 years there might be no more wild
chimpanzees. Well, that is being revised
to 10 years, or even five.”
Added Indonesian primatologist
David Chivers, as keynote speaker in
Lisle, “We know what to do, how to stop
apes from going extinct, but we just can’t
get it implemented.”
The experts all seem to agree
that saving great apes will take more
money. Getting money is the object of HR
4320. If passed by Congress and signed
by U.S. President Bill Clinton, HR 4320
would create a conservation fund for great
apes parallel to existing funds for elephants,
rhinos, and tigers. The fund
would be used to buy and protect habitat.
But even in lobbying for HR
4320, the American Zoo Association
points out that just designating reserves for
great apes will not save them.
Amman was right

“Habitat loss and deforestation
were once thought to be the primary causes
of local wildlife extinction. That is no
longer the case,” said the AZA in a May
18 U.S. Newswire press release. “The
hunting of bushmeat for both local consumption
and large commercial markets
has become the most immediate threat to
wildlife in the Congo Basin. The demand
for bushmeat, and the ability to get it to
large markets, has increased dramatically
as urban populations have grown, road
infrastructures have developed to support
the growing commercial logging and mining
industries, and forests have been
opened up to logging and mining at an
increasing rate.”
Kenyan wildlife photographer
Karl Amman explained as much to A N IMAL
PEOPLE readers in guest columns
published in March 1996 and March 2000.
In 1996––and for several years previous,
as Amman recounted––the international
conservation establishment responded to
his warnings and supporting documentation
with mixed indifference and disbelief.
Only habitat issues were taken seriously;
associating the decline of nonhuman primates
with hunting and meat-eating was
seen as attempted animal rights movement
cause linkage, trivializing “real” conservation
concerns with a supposedly unscientific
preoccupation with the fates of individuals,
as opposed to species.
Amman, however, was right:
as severe as habitat loss is over much wild
primate range, the plight of chimps in particular
is the cumulative effect of governments
and conservation groups either
ignoring or in some cases actively colluding
in killing and eating them, one by one.
Confirmed Debbie Cox, an
Australian who now runs a chimpanzee
sanctuary in Uganda, “Half a ton of bushmeat,
mostly of chimps, is transported to
Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, every
day. At least 30 chimps are eaten per day
in the Congo, and hundreds of others are
smuggled out of the country.”
Cox spoke on May 4 at a workshop
for staff of 12 of the 15 chimp sanctuaries
now known to be operating in
Africa, sponsored by the Conservation
Breeding Specialist Group and the Jane
Goodall Institute.

Backing Cox up was California State
University professor Norman Rosen, who reported
discovering that up to 25% of the chimpanzees
in the Kibaccle forest of western Uganda had been
crippled by snares.
Illegally imported chimpanzee meat has
been found at restaurants serving affluent Africans
as far away as Spain and France.
Not just Africa
“The attention has been focused on
Africa,” an unamed member of the British CITES
delegation told the London Sunday Times in April,
“but there are signs of similar problems in Latin
America, the Caribbean, and Asia.”
“If we allow these species to go extinct,”
said Cox, speaking of all wild primates, “the
whole ecosystem will crumble, because they keep
up the rainforests.”
Agreed the May 18 AZA newswire,
“The loss [of nonhuman primates] in the wild will
also likely affect predators such as leopards, golden
eagles, and large snakes. In addition, the
bushmeat crisis could dramatically affect plants.
Many of the species hunted for bushmeat play a
key role in determining forest structure,” by eating
wild fruits and dispersing the seeds.
“If we don’t move quickly to address
the organizational, economic, and cultural factors
driving this problem,” said AZA conservation and
science director Michael Hutchins, “it could result
in an ecological and social disaster of immense
But the conservation sector still isn’t
talking about recognition of ape rights as a means
of––if nothing else––taking them off the menu.

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