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August 24, 2001 7:15 PT

Planet of the Disappearing Apes
Bushmeat Crisis, Cell Phones are pushing our Cousins to Extinction
by Chris Duffy

SAN Francisco--Gorillas are dying-and dying fast. Last month, Tim Burton’s remake of 1968’s Planet of the Apes screened across America, reliving a film cult classic where Apes rule Earth and treat humans as little more than slaves or toys for amusement. Films like Planet and King Kong cloud the public‘s perception of the gorilla however. These highly intelligent primates are gentle giants of the jungle, and are being wiped out by poachers and loggers in the African rainforest. According to world-renowned conservationist Jane Goodall, who spoke recently at the Kinship Conference in San Francisco, "all primates could be extinct within 20 years." The largest problem for the gorillas today is the poaching by humans for gorilla meat, (also known as Bushmeat) Though hunting of these individuals are highly illegal in Africa, the sad fact is the law is flaunted by hunters. The poachers make a handsome profit by selling bushmeat to the drivers and workers of the loggers who are stripping the jungle for wood to sell to Europe and Japan and throughout Africa.

Kevin Connelly, Director of Development for the Gorilla Foundation, concurs that the bushmeat trade is rampant. "Bushmeat is sold in Gabon and Cameroon to truckers, who then sell it back it in the city, (Nairobi) where it is three to five times more expensive than more conventional meat." Reports of smoked bushmeat showing up in restaurants in London, Amsterdam and New York are not uncommon.

Secondly, the increasing human population of Africa’s gorilla countries, coupled with the ever-expanding demands on its natural resources is shrinking the natural habitat for gorillas. The most recent crisis has been the mining and export of Coltan, which is an extremely rare columbite/tantalite ore used in producing capacitors for cell phones and computers. Roads are built to get into the jungle to mine Coltan. A vast amount of gorilla sustenance is lost: bamboo, wild celery, leaves, etc.

As recently as Wednesday June 6th, the International Gorilla Conservation program reports that a mountain gorilla was murdered on Saturday, June 2nd and eaten for food by militia groups from the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 1998, Hutu tribesmen in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest killed eight gorilla tourists, including two Americans. Since that incident, security is tight in Bwindi and Uganda is the most stable area to view mountain gorillas today.

Why should we care?

Gorillas have approximately 97% of the same genes as humans. Only Chimpanzees are closer genetically to us.

A celebrity gorilla, Koko, has been taught sign language and can communicate abstract thoughts with her human care givers. Koko’s communication has taught us volumes about how primates interact with themselves and humans.

Gorillas help keep the African rainforest healthy. Kevin Connelly of the Koko project says that "gorillas are an important part of the African ecosystem. General biodiversity is very important for a healthy ecosystem." In general, the more species there are in existence, the healthier the system. Gorillas are nature’s ‘Johnny Apple seed’, spreading seeds in their dung, thus spreading and fertilizing future vegetation.

Some scientists believe that HIV and aids may have come about by the commercialization of the Bushmeat trade. One of the field's authorities, Dr. Anthony Rose, states: "Bushmeat hunting along each new logging road could bring out more than ape meat. It could transmit additional variants of SIV which then could mutate and recombine into novel HIV types and further expand the pernicious AIDS plague faced worldwide." 1

What is being done?

Recent legislation in the form of the Great Apes Survival project or GRASP, has apportioned $5 million annually over the next five years to save all of the great apes-Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Gorillas and Orangatans, but several sources say this is simply not enough. "Though this is a step in the right direction, this is merely a drop in the bucket," says Connelly. "This effort will require money from businesses and individuals, enforcement, and education." The answer to gorilla conservation is not a simple fix. The gorillas do not live in our country and therefore assistance must be by indirect channels. However, if we provide programs which demonstrate to the indigenous human population the value of these creatures, we can begin to make a difference. In addition, it is key to fund programs which cultivate alternative methods of income for Africans so that the bushmeat crisis can be abated.

Some ways you can help gorillas:

Learn about them:
Gorilla Cam

Make a financial contribution

Dian Fossey's Gorilla Fund
Koko's World
The African Wildlife Federation

1 Reprinted with permission from Human Health Could Depend on Saving Apes.,Dr. Anthony L. Rose, Ph.D. Institute for Conservation Education and Development Antioch University Southern California http://www.bushmeat.net/hiv-chimps299.htm

Mountain Gorillas

Only 650 Mountain Gorillas exist in the world.

Most Western Lowland gorillas are the ones we see in our cities’ zoos. These are the smallest of the gorilla species, and are found in western Africa: Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, Southeast Nigeria and certain forested portions of the Central African Republic. There are approximately 100,000 Western lowland gorillas left in existence, 600 of which live as captive individuals around the world. About half of that population is in North American Zoos. The other subspecies is another group of Western Lowland gorillas are the cross river gorillas, found isolated on mountainsides on the border of Nigeria and Cameroon.

The Eastern Lowland gorilla is a not so different from its western cousin, aside from shorter black hair and narrower face. This subspecies is slightly larger than those in the west are. There are approximately 5000 of this subspecies living predominantly in the Congo, (formerly Zaire), while only a few dozen live in captivity.

The rarest of gorillas is the Mountain Gorilla of which there are two subspecies-Virunga and Bwindi. These groups were the subject of Dian Fossey’s research and featured in the 1989 film Gorillas in the Mist. The largest primates in the family, these gentle giants are no King Kongs. The are rather peace-loving herbivores whose only natural enemy is man. They can grow as large as 450 pounds. They share the same basic body structure as the lowland gorilla, with the exception of their size and their thicker, longer fur, which keeps them warm in their wet mountain habitat of Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo. e Virunga group, which has approximately 300 members, makes its home in Bwindi’s Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. The Virunga group is approximately 350 in number and is found in the Virunga Volcano region of Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo.