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Great Apes and Humans: Conserving Our Evolutionary Relatives [EXCLUSIVE]

Jan 16, 2015 08:53 PM EST

There is no doubt that apes and humans have a lot in common, in terms of personality, intellect and emotional states, and so with many of these species in decline, conservationists note that it is more important than ever that we work to save our evolutionary relatives.

Chimpanzees in particular share 98 percent of our DNA, and so their close relationship to humans brings all sorts of ethical questions to mind, such as if they should be afforded the same rights as humans.

Experts behind the book Great Apes and Humans: The Ethics of Coexistence delve into these hot-topic issues and our responsibility towards great apes, both in the wild and in captivity, to ensure their future survival.

"I think ultimately we share this planet with a lot of other biodiversity and we have an obligation to ensure that it can survive," Tara Stoinski, President of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, told Nature World News (NWN).

"These are some of our closest living relatives; they are linked to our evolutionary past," she continued. "They are an important charismatic species for the forests they live in, and those forests are home to incredible biodiversity that has value in and of itself, but also is really important to the survival of humans on this planet."

Threats to Great Apes

Factors like habitat loss, deforestation, poaching, disease and wild game consumption - commonly referred to as the bushmeat trade - are just a few factors currently affecting apes living in Asia and Africa. If these rates of decline don't change soon, great apes will be gone within the next 10 to 40 years - and that's not even considering the effects of climate change.

"If we don't stop what's happening now, for apes they'll be gone before serious effects of climate change start to take place," Stoinski said. "For the mountain gorillas, for example, that are in a very restricted range, they don't have a lot of places where they can move if their habitat changes a lot from climate change."

Mountain gorillas, as their name implies, live in the forests high in the mountains at elevations of 8,000 to 13,000 feet, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). As the world's smallest population of mountain gorillas - a subspecies of the eastern gorilla - they are split between two places: the Virunga Mountains that border Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. (Scroll to read on...)

Unfortunately, poaching, destruction of habitat, disease and an encroaching human population has taken a toll on their numbers, with just around 880 individuals left struggling to survive.

Not to mention that apes in general are slow to reproduce, and it takes populations a long time to recover. But Stoinski says that there is still hope yet for these animals, as long as humans are ready to go to great lengths to protect them.

The conservation expert noted that based on observation, mountain gorillas - all of which live in national parks - are better able to bounce back through a method called "extreme conservation." This tactic essentially involves bodyguards that watch over these apes 24/7, and the only parts of the protected population seeing an increase in numbers are those benefitting from extreme conservation.

"To us it really pointed out the level of investment that we're going to need to make if we're really going to save some of these species that are so low in number from going extinct. Just living in a park doesn't mean that you're numbers are going to be increasing," Stoinski explained.

But while having a babysitter of sorts appears most effective against poachers, it won't necessarily protect all great ape species from every threat out there.

Orangutans in Borneo, for instance, are mostly in decline due to a disappearing habitat from deforestation. Developers are bulldozing down their lush tropical forests to make way for oil palm plantations and other agricultural uses, and their numbers are only expected to dwindle further.

A century ago there were approximately more than 230,000 orangutans worldwide, the WWF says, but now the Bornean orangutan is estimated to number about 41,000 (and the Sumatran about 7,500).

Great Apes Have Rights Too

But threats for these and other great apes don't just exist in the wild, but in captivity as well. Apes kept in zoos and sanctuaries, or as entertainers and pets aren't always kept in the best of conditions. While just last week a pair of cotton-top tamarins - a critically endangered species - froze to death in a Louisiana zoo after their caregiver allegedly failed to notice them.

A recent study even showed that an upbringing among humans can be costly for chimpanzees, specifically. Chimpanzees raised as pets or performers from an early age suffer long-term behavioral problems as a result. (Scroll to read on...)

So certain groups are advocating for chimps and other great apes on their behalf, arguing that such closely related species should be afforded the same rights as humans - an idea described as "legal personhood."

"If those rights are provided to them, then they wouldn't be able to be 'prisoned unlawfully' - that is, they wouldn't be able to be kept in zoos or as pets or as entertainers. That is a bit of a radical strategy I think, because of course it raises all sorts of potential problems," Dr. Steven Ross with the Lincoln Park Zoo explained to NWN.

Obviously, lots of ethical concerns come to mind; for instance, Ross notes, should a chimpanzee kill someone, could it be tried for murder?

Ross says that a simpler, less radical strategy could easily be used to help improve the welfare of these amazing animals, which entails setting higher standards for the way they're cared for.

It's also important to remember that the loss of great apes doesn't just mean the loss of various species that hold the secret to our evolutionary past, but also the disappearance of animals vital to our planet and ecosystems.

"If apes were to disappear and if the forests that they live in were to disappear, human lives would be very negatively affected," Stoinski added.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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