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November 17, 2005

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The imperiled state of our closest living relatives

Unfortunately, all apes, great and small, are in dire straits. All face extinction as their habitats are destroyed.
BY BIRUTE MARY GALDIKAS

The first time I heard Canada's Governor General, Michaelle Jean, mention “breaking down solitudes,” I thought that it was an exquisite reference to issues in Canadian society.

But the second time I heard the phrase, it brought to mind orangutans, the most solitary of the apes, “the solitudes.” The “breaking down” implied the orangutans' imperiled state on the edge of extinction.

When I first started studying orangutans in the great tropical rain forests of Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan), all that science knew about these enigmatic red apes in the wild might have filled a page. That was almost 35 years ago. We now know much more about orangutans but, unfortunately, we also know that orangutan populations have declined precipitously over the last few decades and that 80 per cent of orangutan habitat has been decimated.

Ten years ago Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) proclaimed the first week in November as International Orangutan Awareness Week in an attempt to publicize the plight of the wild orangutan to a seemingly oblivious world. OFI www.orangutan.org put up a website www.ioaw.org and encouraged supporters to hold events, give talks and bring attention in any way they could to the dire situation facing orangutans in the wild.

Along with the African chimpanzees and gorillas, the Asian orangutans are great apes, our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom. Chimpanzees are so closely related to humans that their genome differs by only 1.2 per cent in terms of single nucleotide changes and, once blood types are matched, chimpanzees can receive blood transfusions from us and vice versa. Gorillas, the greatest of the great apes in terms of size, are also very closely related to humans who, in some ways, are just another African ape.

All great apes share with humans high cognitive abilities, similar emotions, foresight, excellent memories, self-recognition and self-awareness, and are capable of symbolic communication, insight, imitation and innovation as well as generalization, abstract thought and problem solving. When we look into their eyes, we see something there that we recognize. Their eyes reflect our own.

Less known are the small apes, gibbons and the siamang. After the great apes, the small apes are our closest living relatives. Found only in Southeast Asia and China, small apes are territorial, monogamous, and the acrobats of the primate world, swinging from tree to tree like the “flying young man on the swinging trapeze” and then soaring mid-air as they let go of one branch and fly to reach another. Certainly, this soaring locomotion is their form of genius. Gibbons are also known for their soprano vocalizations. Gibbons don't use tools and don't perform well in laboratory tests, scoring below some monkeys on intelligence tests. But studies of their brain show cerebellums that fall on the great ape side of the divide. And I personally have seen one captive gibbon, to my amazement, use tools, twigs, to scratch himself. I think gibbons are underrated. They are as flighty, edgy, and fragile as the birds with which they share the treetops. But they are brighter, smarter and more adaptable than they have been given credit for in textbooks.

Unfortunately, all apes, great and small, are in dire straits. All face extinction as their habitats are destroyed. When I first arrived in Borneo over 90 per cent of the island consisted of primary tropical rain forest, the world's second-largest continuous expanse of forest after the Amazon Basin. But now Borneo's forest is in retreat, like the forests of equatorial Africa, under relentless pressure from the forces of the global economy. Like a high-speed locomotive with no one at the controls, the global economy hurtles recklessly into the future, overwhelming everything in its path, destroying habitats and accelerating the extinction of plants and animals as well as the destruction of traditional human communities that co-existed with and sheltered the ecosystems in which the apes lived.

The prognosis for all ape populations in the wild is bleak. As habitat loss continues, ape populations decline and fragment, creating smaller populations that are increasingly vulnerable to local extinction. Local extinctions are common. In the African nation of Togo, once 33 per cent forest, the forest is now almost gone. Not surprisingly, the western chimpanzee recently went extinct in Togo. In Nigeria and Cameroon, the Cross River Gorilla has the lowest population of any African great ape with only 150-200 left. In China, due to recent industrial development, the call of the Hainan gibbon can only be heard in captivity. On the island of Java the endemic gibbon is found in only two protected mountainous areas and numbers less than two thousand. In Sumatra the orangutan population is critically endangered; some populations number only in the dozens.

As I write, International Orangutan Awareness Week is in full swing. But what does it matter? Jane Goodall has been on the road tirelessly since 1986 championing chimpanzee conservation and animal rights. Yet chimpanzee habitats are shrinking. In West and Central Africa, chimpanzees are just meat for the pot. Unless politicians, rock stars, and governments embrace the cause of great and small ape extinction in a major way, apes will go extinct within the next 50 years.

The one bright spot remains the mountain gorillas. Dian Fossey gave up her life in 1985 for the gorillas. The tourist industry that followed helped provide stability and money, allowing for a 17 per cent increase in gorilla numbers since the last census. It costs $50 for a park ranger to guide you to the cabin where Dian lived and the grave where she lies buried. It costs $350 per day for one hour with the gorillas. The mountain gorillas are as expensive as some lawyers. That has been their salvation.

I'm not saying we need more martyrs to ensure the survival of the great and small apes but the Hollywood movie, Gorillas in the Mist, sure helped. And International Orangutan Awareness Week also probably helps hold back the tide. It could be a lot worse.

Orangutans could be extinct throughout their entire range and not just locally. We need a Mission Impossible like those led by Bono and Bill Gates in their fight against global poverty and disease. We need to pressure our governments to save the great and small apes. An occasional billionaire would help, too.

Why save the apes? I could give ecological and even economic answers but the truth is greater. The great and small apes represent who we once were and where we came from. They are not our ancestors but our siblings, brother and sister species, and our cousins. They led the way and we followed, eventually overtaking them as we became human, and then we left them behind. That separation should not be their death sentence. What consolation solitude if we remain the only species in our family left behind on a planet endlessly spinning with no close kin to call our own?


Birute Mary Galdikas is a professor in the department of archaeology. She is an Officer of the Order of Canada and also the only foreign-born person ever to win the Kalpataru, Hero of the Environment Award, from the Indonesian government. She has been studying orangutans for the last 35 years.















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