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Get Talking

Ask students: What are the four great apes? Where do they live? Why are great apes endangered? Have students identify Indonesia and west central Africa on a map.

Notes Behind the News

Great apes share about 96 percent of their DNA with humans. For chimpanzees, the figure is as high as 98.4 percent. African apes are actually more closely related to humans than they are to orangutans. According to Great Ape Survival Project (GRASP), humans’ relationship with apes is so close that a taxonomist from another planet would probably classify humans as an African ape species.

In a recent study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Washington University, scientists compared the DNA of chimpanzees and humans. By placing the two codes side by side, scientists identified 400 million molecular changes that separate humans and chimps and pinpointed 250,000 that seem to indicate differences between the two species. All told, the gene sequences differ by four percent. However, three-quarters of the differences seem to be in “non-functional” parts of the genome, suggesting that there is only a one percent difference between the two species.

Researchers say the study could help explain why chimps are resistant to several human diseases such as AIDS, hepatitis, malaria, and Alzheimer’s, which could help scientists find new ways to prevent or treat the diseases in humans.

Ultimately, scientists hope the new information will help discern what makes people human. “We’re not going to stand up and say that these 14 things make us human” said MIT’s Eric S. Lander. “But it’s not trivial to be able to say, ‘Here is an inventory of the most important differences, and now go at it and figure out which of these differences contain the signatories of what is distinctly human.”

The DNA analysis was the first of a nonhuman primate. Chimps are the fourth mammal to undergo testing

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Doing More

Have students create a poster that illustrates the plight of the great apes and offers ways people can help.

Link It

* World Wildlife Foundation: http://www.worldwildlife.org/apes/index.cfm

* African Wildlife Foundation: http://www.awf.org/wildlives/149

* United Nations GRASP: http://www.unep.org/grasp/

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo–Some of your relatives are in trouble–big trouble. Some are being killed; others are deathly ill; some are having their homes destroyed. If something isn’t done soon, your closest living relatives will be extinct.

They are the great apes: the gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos of Africa and the orangutans of Indonesia, and their populations are dropping at an alarming rate.

According to the United Nations Great Ape Survival Project (GRASP), as few as 350,000 great apes, which once numbered in the millions, now exist in the wild. and populations of some great apes are down to less than a thousand. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and Uganda, only 700 mountain gorillas remain. The chimpanzee has already become extinct in three countries–Benin, Gambia, and Togo.

“It’s crunch time,” says Ian Redmond, GRASP’s chief consultant. “We have to take drastic action before it’s too late.”

Taking action is exactly what GRASP recently got countries with wild great ape populations to do. At a meeting in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, 23 countries, mostly in Africa, signed a declaration vowing to protect the great apes. The agreement calls for each country to develop a plan for conservation and to significantly slow habitat loss (a main reason for declining great ape populations) by 2010.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan praised the agreement. “The great apes are our kin…. Sadly, however, we have not treated them with the respect they deserve…. This [is] an opportunity … to … chart a way forward.”

No Trees, No Apes

Saving the great apes from extinction is no easy task. They face a variety of threats–most of them from humans. One of the biggest is the loss of habitat caused by the felling of forests where the animals live. Orangutans are particularly at risk when many trees are cut.

“Orangutans are … arboreal. They are in trees 99 percent of the time,” says Cheryl, Knott, a Harvard University anthropologist. “Almost 80 percent of their rain forest habitat has been destroyed,” she says.

According to Knott, the primary reason for rampant land loss is the illegal logging industry in Indonesia. Although most logging is banned in that country, local authorities often accept bribes to allow loggers to cut down huge swaths of forest and sell the timber overseas.

Farming practices in Indonesia also play a part in orangutan habitat destruction. Wealthy farmers clear large tracts of land for palm oil and rubber tree plantations. One plantation can be as large as 50,000 acres.

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Apes Under Siege

Excessive logging has exacerbated another threat to great apes–poaching or illegal hunting. Loggers build roads in remote regions of the forests, giving poachers an easy way into regions that were once inaccessible. “Tons and tons of wild animal meat are trucked into urban centers,” says wildlife expert Jane Goodall. “Hunters from the towns can use the logging trucks to go along the roads…. They shoot everything … load it onto trucks and take it into the cities,” she says.

People in the Congo Basin, a large rain forest area in central Africa, have lived on bush meat, as meat from wild animals is called, for thousands of years. But now the animals are being hunted faster than they can reproduce.

Civil wars have further aggravated the plight of great apes. Eleven of the African countries at the Kinshasa meeting have experienced civil wars in the last decade. In the DRC, unrest forced thousands of people into national parks, where more than 10,000 gorillas were killed for meat or money during the conflict.

“War destroyed the [economy], and people could no longer sell their crops,” says the African Wildlife Foundation’s Jeff Dupain. “They had no access to markets, so they just lived in the forest, where they hunted and ate and sold among themselves.”

Great apes have yet another strike against them–disease. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of great apes in Africa have died from Ebola since an outbreak in 2003. The deadly disease, which affects humans as well, kills from 50 percent to 90 percent of those infected. Nearly two-thirds of the 800 gorillas living in the Lossi sanctuary in northwestern Congo died from Ebola in 2003.

Saving a Species

Though it will be an uphill battle, conservationists think the Kinshasa treaty is a major step in the right direction. “It will take a lot of work … but we still have a chance to save these animals.”

The World Wildlife Fund’s Richard Carroll says there really is no choice. “If humans allow our closest relatives to go extinct, we have failed as a species.”

Words in the News

The United Nations (U.N.) is an organization of countries that works for world peace. Created in 1945, the U.N. now has 191 nations. The organization is not a world government and does not make laws. Instead, it helps resolve international disputes and formulates policies on major world issues. It also helps to develop friendly relations among nations and promotes respect for human rights. Each U.N. member country, no matter its size, has a say in the group’s actions.

The Congo Basin is the world’s second largest river basin and rain forest region, after the Amazon Basin. The Congo Basin is located in west central Africa and covers 1,335,000 square miles–about 11 percent of the continent. It includes parts of Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of, the Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda, Burundi, and Sao Tome and Principe. The Congo Basin rain forests are important because they support biodiversity, protect watersheds, help maintain water supplies, and regulate local climate patterns.

Jane Goodall (1934-) is a world renowned primatologist. She has studied chimpanzees in Tanzania since 1960. She observed chimps stripping leaves off twigs to make tools for fishing termites out of a nest–proving that humans are not the only species to make tools. Goodall also observed chimps hunting and eating other animals, disproving the theory that they are mainly vegetarians. Goodall founded the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education, and Conservation in 1977 to support ongoing field research on wild chimpanzees.

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