Apes are our closest living cousins… In fact, we’re just a pair of chromosomes apart.
Actually, we are apes. Humans and non-human apes all evolved from a common ancestor about 14 million years ago – not that long in the grand scheme of things. We are most closely related to chimps and bonobos, while gorillas and orangutans are more like our first cousins once removed. In fact, we are closer to chimps and bonobos, than they are to gorillas.
Apes laugh, love, feel sad
…and sometimes get depressed. Apes can be very cunning, manipulating situations for their own benefit. They show fear, don’t like pain and are disgusted by certain foods.
Apes are also problem solvers, highly creative, make future plans and communicate with each other. They like hugs. They take care of themselves – they spend a lot of time grooming. Some are more introverted, others are socialites. Sometimes strength rules, sometimes being a good negotiator wins the day, and sometimes they throw all good sense out the window and pick fights. In general, though, apes care an awful lot about the health and welfare of their wider community – they have a sense of what’s right and wrong. They care.
Sound like anyone you know?
“In what terms should we think of these beings, nonhuman yet possessing so very many human-like characteristics? How should we treat them? Surely we should treat them with the same consideration and kindness as we show to other humans? And as we recognise human rights, so too should we recognise the rights of the great apes.”
~ Jane Goodall
Now apes are in danger…
Once upon a time, the forests of equatorial Africa spread unbroken across these regions and apes thrived. Forty or so years ago, chimpanzees were in the millions, gorillas and bonobos in the hundreds of thousands. There are now estimated to be only 700,000 great apes in Africa, half of which are gorillas. Once upon a time, orangutans ranged throughout the forests of Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Vietnam and southern China. That is no longer the case.
Orangutans have declined by about 97 per cent in the 20th Century. They now live in fragments of forest in Borneo and Sumatra. As for the 20 species of gibbons, there are about 730,000 individuals, total.
How does it feel to be human now? (We aren’t very good cousins.)
Human activities such as agriculture, mining, commercial logging, and rural development, in both Africa and Asia, are destroying apes’ habitat. And now, poaching for wild meat, habitat loss and degradation, and infectious diseases are known to be the most important threats to great apes in Africa. Of course, there are also many cases of live infants being trafficked illegally.
So where does that leave us? Good question.
Well, some have already gone extinct – three species of gibbon in China, to be exact. We’ve only just ‘discovered’ the Tapanuli orangutan in Indonesia. But those 800 are most assuredly on their way out given the looming Hydroelectric dam project that will likely leave their habitat hugely fragmented.
In other news, there are less than 300 mature Cross River gorillas in Cameroon-Nigeria. And, we’ve lost 93 per cent of Grauer’s gorilla in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 20 years.
On the critical list…
Of the four species of African great apes – western gorilla, eastern gorilla, bonobo and chimpanzee – two are recognised as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List for Threatened Species (both gorilla species) and two as Endangered (chimpanzee and bonobo).
All three species of orangutan are Critically Endangered. Of the twenty species of smaller apes, six are Critically Endangered, thirteen Endangered and one Vulnerable.
There are a few ‘happy’ stories, though.
Across Rwanda, Uganda, and Democratic Republic of Congo, mountain gorillas are ‘on the rise’ – there are now 1,004 individuals, up from 250 in Virunga in 1981. There are now 32 individual Hainan gibbons. There were only 28 individuals five years ago.
Do you feel better? Didn’t think so.
So, back to the original question: Where does that leave us? If they go, do we go? Are we that closely linked? Maybe. We don’t really know. But the demise of our closest relative should be cause for alarm.
It’s high time we reclaimed our inner Ape and stepped up.
What can you do?
This #GivingDayForApes there are lots of ways you can support fantastic people and organisations doing their bit to protect our closest living cousins. Visit the Giving Day for Apes page to find out how.
Support The Ape Fund
If you want to provide long-term support for ape conservation, contact us to find out how you can support The Ape Fund, a collaborative funding initiative between Synchronicity Earth and the Arcus Foundation.
The Ape Fund allows donors to provide long-term support – either through a single donation or a series of donations – and plug the gaps left by more traditional fundraising approaches. For a donor, this model means that a single donation to The Ape Fund will work towards ape conservation action for the crucial period of the next 10 to 20 years. This fund aims to halt the decline of these magnificent animals and ensure future generations of viable, growing populations in the wild.