Man’s closest genetic relative, the ape, is facing pressures that could drive it into extinction in the wild, the World Wildlife Fund warned Thursday.
Driven from their natural habitats, hunted for their meat, poached as trophies and listed as the ‘plat du jour’ in fancy Paris restaurants, the world’s great apes have been fighting a losing battle in recent years.
While there are still tens of thousands of great apes left - from chimpanzees to orangutans to gorillas - their numbers have dropped precipitously.
The wildlife group warned that the ape could end up extinct, but did not estimate when that could happen.
The latest threat comes in the form of war.
“The most endangered of all these apes is the mountain gorilla, whose last stronghold is the troubled - sometimes war-torn - zone along the frontiers of Rwanda, Zaire and Uganda,” Elizabeth Kemp, Species Policy Information Officer for WWF International said.
In 1994, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled ethnic violence in Rwanda, streaming into Zaire and settling near the Virunga National Park, a haven for mountain gorillas.
The WWF said that landmines, firewood collection, random shootings and the threat of disease are killing chimpanzees and putting the gorillas at risk.
Kemp noted, though, that Zairian rebels were cooperating with conservationists to help protect animals.
One of the largest threats to the great ape is loss of habitat, the report said.
The report warned that in 50 to 70 years the forests in Zaire, Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon could disappear completely.
Wildlife is also being increasingly hunted for food, it added. “Bush meat,” long hunted by the denizens of the forests, has become fashionably exotic, with restaurants as far as Paris and Brussels offering monkey.
The great apes are also hunted for souvenirs. In the late 1980’s many orangutan skulls were sold to tourists in Indonesia, a practice that has been stopped by the government.