Great Apes and African Elephants: What Does the Future Hold?

This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty. nd I'm Sarah Long.

This week -- warnings about the danger of extinction for the great apes ... and a study that may, or may not, offer good news for African elephants.

The United Nations says great apes are in danger of disappearing. Experts say some species will disappear soon, and others within fifty years. The great apes are gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos. They live in the wild in twenty-three countries in Africa and Asia. They are the closest relatives to humans.

An emergency meeting took place last month in Paris. Representatives from those twenty-three countries met with environmental groups and scientific experts. For three days they discussed how to save the great apes. They also discussed plans for a meeting of government ministers late next year.

The U-N Environment Program and UNESCO, the U-N cultural organization, organized a project in two-thousand-one. It is called the Great Apes Survival Project -- or GRASP. Officials say sixteen of the twenty-three countries have begun taking measures to protect their great apes. The meeting organizers say they hope to expand these measures. The United Nations says at least twenty-five million dollars is needed to begin the effort.

Great apes share more than ninety-six percent of our genetic material. They stand upright, and hold things with hands like ours. Their ability to learn is of great interest to people.

Ian Redman heads the technical support team for the Great Apes Survival Project. He says the future of the planet is linked to their survival. He describes great apes, along with elephants, as the "gardeners" of the forest. They help keep it healthy. U-N officials note that to many scientists, if we lose a species of great apes, we destroy part of our humanity.

An estimated four-hundred-thousand great apes remain in the wild. Experts say the western chimpanzee has already disappeared from Benin, Burkina Faso, Gambia and Togo. In Ghana, the numbers are estimated between just three-hundred and five-hundred.

Human activities are the most serious threat to the great apes. Researchers say the two biggest problems are the destruction of forests and road building. A U-N report called "The Great Apes - the Road Ahead" examines the situation.

Great apes live in environments that contain resources valuable to people. Things like trees, minerals and oil. Logging and mining camps bring new roads. Foreign demand for hardwood causes the logging industry to move deeper into forests.

Clearing forests makes it easier for hunters to find and kill apes. The U-N report notes that bushmeat is an important food to many people in west and central Africa. Some of the people also believe it has special powers of magic or medicine. In Africa and Asia, killing and selling apes can also provide extra money to villagers and workers in the forest.

Even with laws against it, bushmeat hunting is now more widespread. The U-N report says hunting increases in times of conflict. And demand is rising from people who live in cities.

Scientists say the bushmeat trade increases the risk that infectious diseases will spread from apes to humans. The U-N report notes that chimpanzees and gorillas can get influenza, tuberculosis, measles, mumps, even the common cold.

Ebola virus is a big concern. The disease usually kills apes that become infected. Experts say Ebola can spread from handling the bodies of infected apes. The World Health Organization says between fifty and ninety percent of people who develop Ebola die.

Ebola causes uncontrolled bleeding. Scientists are developing ways to prevent or treat it. For now, though, aside from the danger to humans, Ebola could severely effect the future of the great apes.

The number of chimpanzees left in the world is not known. But researchers say their tropical rainforest is being destroyed at a rate of more than one-hundred-thousand square kilometers a year.

The U-N report says chimpanzees are captured in large numbers. Chimpanzee products are sold in local markets. Trade in baby chimpanzees is widespread. Until recently, large numbers of chimpanzees were also used for medical research.

The population of western lowland gorillas has dropped sharply from hunting and the spread of the Ebola virus. Gorillas are also killed by traps meant for other animals. Researchers say gorilla populations have dropped by more than fifty-percent in some areas, and more than ninety percent in others. They say the number of mountain gorillas has fallen below seven-hundred.

Gorillas in the wild normally live about thirty-five years. Females give birth to only about three babies in their lifetime.

Countries with great apes have laws to control hunting and capture. But the U-N report says a lack of money usually means little or no enforcement.

Orangutans are the only great apes outside Africa. They are found in Southeast Asia, on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Researchers say the orangutan population has dropped below twenty-seven-thousand. They say this is mostly the result of fires, logging, mining and farming. They say human activities have taken away up to fifty percent of the orangutan's environment.

Experts say hunting is common. They say female orangutans are usually killed to steal their babies for sale as pets.

The U-N meeting last month in Paris produced an international work plan to help end hunting of great apes. The delegates said countries with these animals must take urgent action. There were also calls for international help to expand protected areas and to increase forest conservation measures. Last year, at the Johannesburg environmental summit, the United States promised ninety-million dollars for such programs in central Africa.

From great apes, we turn to elephants in Africa. A new report says Africa is thought to have between four-hundred-thousand and six-hundred-sixty-thousand elephants. These numbers are higher than reported in nineteen-ninety-nine. But scientists are careful when they talk about the new findings. They say a number of things could explain the increase.

Experts from the World Conservation Union gathered information from a record-keeping system called the African Elephant Database. The scientists believe that Southern Africa has the most elephants, at least two-hundred-forty-six-thousand. They say the number could be as high as three-hundred-thousand.

East Africa is next, followed by Central Africa. The reports says Central Africa could have as few as sixteen-thousand elephants or as many as almost two-hundred-thousand. West Africa is believed to have the fewest elephants, at least five-thousand-five-hundred and as many as thirteen-thousand.

The overall increase this year is partly the result of reported increases in the large elephant populations in Botswana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Also, the estimates cover a much larger area than before. But the numbers still represent only half of the total area where elephants may be found.

Julian Blanc helped write the report. He says the numbers say little about the condition of elephant populations across Africa. He says most elephant studies are restricted to protected areas. Elephants often flee to these areas to escape from humans. As a result, he says, large groups of elephants can give the misleading appearance that populations have increased.

SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written and produced by Cynthia Kirk and also written by George Grow. This is Bob Doughty. And this is Sarah Long. Join us again next week for more news about science, in Special English, on the Voice of America.