On the brink of losing evolutionary link


Poaching and lost habitats may kill all our great apes in the next century.

Just over 100 years from now, almost all of the world’s great apes may have vanished. The forest habitats of gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans are rapidly disappearing, often being turned into farmland. Disease, poaching and other challenges further imperil our closest genetic cousins and have pushed them to the brink of extinction.

In Planet Without Apes, primatologist Craig B. Stanford examines the threats to apes’ survival and explores possible approaches to reversing or at least neutralizing those pressures. He reveals a complex web of cultural, social, economic and biological issues that explain why this problem is so exceedingly difficult to solve.

The book’s most illuminating section focuses on ecotourism. In this practice, a country that is home to a large population of apes protects the animals and their environment as tourist attractions. Visitors shell out hundreds of dollars to view the animals, usually gorillas, in their natural habitats. Gorilla tourism has become a leading source of revenue for countries such as Uganda and Rwanda.

Conservationists and scientists have mixed reactions to ecotourism. On one hand, it creates rich economic incentives for impoverished African and Asian nations to crack down on poaching and to stop razing the animals’ forest homes. But when apes are regularly visited by humans, they are more vulnerable to our diseases, which can devastate entire animal communities. For example, pneumonia spread through a population of gorillas in an ecotourism-friendly area of East Africa in 1990, and two of the animals died. Other evidence suggests that diseases such as polio and scabies have passed from humans to animals in places where they have frequent contact.

While Stanford clearly defines the nature and scope of these thorny issues, he is weaker in making his broader point: that we should care deeply about these species’ survival. He makes the case that our treatment of apes has amounted to “genocide.” He also argues that the line between human and ape is so blurry that we may one day regret our treatment of these animals in the same way that we are ashamed of how we once treated disenfranchised groups of people.

“Allowing (apes) to die would be like allowing our extended family to die,” Stanford writes. His essential point is that they are close kin to humans, and their similarities to us should be an obvious cue that we must work for their survival. But that argument would be more persuasive if it addressed some broader questions. Why should we draw the line at protecting apes and not other primates? Does protecting the world’s ape population advance the broader conservation movement in some distinct, inimitable way? Are there special benefits to ecosystems or economies that have large populations of apes? The exploration of these and other tough questions might have lent nuance and richness to Stanford’s case.

Sarah Halzack reviewed this book for The Washington Post.

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