Interviews: Saving the World's Great Apes

The chimpanzee is one of the great ape species, and genetically closest to humans.

An infant chimpanzee at Kibale National Park, Uganda. The chimp is one of the great ape species, and genetically closest to humans. Jean-Michel Krief hide caption

itoggle caption Jean-Michel Krief

The great apes are in trouble. Surrounded by burgeoning human populations tearing at their habitats, the world's gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans face imminent extinction.

But a new United Nations-sponsored partnership could help change that dire prediction. The Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP) brings together the most influential conservation groups and government agencies under one umbrella, with one simple goal: "conserve viable, wild populations of every kind of great ape and to make sure that, where they interact with people, those interactions are mutually positive and sustainable."

Mark Leighton, executive director of a foundation called the Great Ape World Heritage Species Project, also serves on the scientific commission of GRASP and is a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University.

Leighton has worked in conservation and ecological science in Indonesia, focusing on tropical rainforests and orangutans. He spoke with Alex Chadwick recently about the short- and long-term goals of GRASP, and the group's most recent victories.

GRASP has an excellent chance to succeed, Leighton says, because there's active participation from the 23 "range countries" where the great apes cling to survival, and there's a common set of rules.

"We've been watching the steady decline of great apes and thinking that there's something wrong here, where everyone operates independently," he says. "GRASP represents a wholesale change — an enforced cooperative nature among all these partners to pool their own resources."

Leighton says all the elements are in place — and there's a new consensus on what to do next.

"We could avert the extinction of these wonderful great apes. There are actually places on the ground, the habitat areas, for these populations in all these countries. There's clear, possible solutions to the threats they face in the short and the long term. And that, with the proper technical assistance, political cooperation and financing, these can be all protected. We're going to lose a few of these, but most of these could be protected."

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