Planet without Apes

November 8, 2012

The non-human great apes - our closest living relatives - are on the edge of extinction. Planet without Apes highlights the myriad threats facing the estimated 300,000 to 400,000 remaining chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla and orangutan individuals clinging on to survival. “Their forests are being cut down beneath them. Their meat is relished by people. They are subject to all the diseases that afflict humans and have suffered massive epidemics from emerging viruses. They continue to be taken from the wild to serve as laboratory animals, circus performers, and household pets.” Craig Stanford does not beat around the bush.

But why the sole focus on great apes? In Stanford’s eyes the answer is simple: “We should care about the great apes first and foremost because they are us.” Throughout the book he emphasises our shared morphological, genetic, behavioural and cognitive traits, and argues that great apes should therefore be afforded special significance. A focus on great apes with no reference to small apes (the often-forgotten gibbons) and little reference to monkeys or other species that are every bit as threatened may well annoy some primatologists and wildlife biologists. But the personal flavour of Stanford’s account, which draws on his firsthand experience of studying apes in the wild, doubtless would be lost if the book were expanded to include other species. In places, however, discussions focus rather too heavily on chimpanzees, especially through persistent reference to the chimpanzee community in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park.

Although this is not the first attempt to examine the suite of threats to our closest living relatives, it is the first to offer such a personable and easy-to-understand approach pitched at readers lacking any previous background in conservation biology. The book’s title is attention-grabbing, its short length and non-academic style make it more reader-friendly than primate conservation texts, and a basic bibliography offers further reading for those whose interest has been piqued. Throughout, Stanford’s thought-provoking and well-balanced discussions are offered with passion.

The author certainly does not shy away from sharing his views with the reader. He frequently compares the apes’ demise to genocide, yet he is careful to declare that extinction of the great apes is more an act of ignorance than a wilful one. Through describing the great apes as “the last true savages”, he argues that we are “treating them about the same way we treated our human brethren for so long”. He not only contends that great ape gene pools will be lost if the extermination continues but also talks of “ethnocide”, or the extinction of the rich culture that exists among our closest living relatives. The language he uses is designed to provoke a reaction and lead us to reflect on how future generations will view our actions. Additionally, he emphasises how each of us is likely to play an unwitting part in great ape extinction - who among us, after all, does not own a mobile phone? Extracting the resources used in their manufacture has put gorilla habitats in grave danger.

Stanford’s stance - that we should be far less concerned with the welfare of any one individual animal than with preserving its species in perpetuity - echoes throughout this short book. He tackles thorny issues head-on, from the true value of captive apes as conservation education tools to the real price of ecotourism, and rightly argues that the needs of both people and wildlife must be met for conservation to succeed. Although his discussion of the ethics surrounding captive apes will undoubtedly elicit much interest and controversy, too much space is used at the expense of more thorough discussions of other threats facing wild populations and how these threats might be mitigated. For example, issues of human-great ape conflict (for example, over access to crops or ape attacks on people) are brushed over, despite their importance for the conservation of ape populations inhabiting all but the largest protected areas.

Whether this book leaves you feeling deflated or empowered, it will make you consider our ethical responsibility to conserve our closest living relatives. Ever-growing human populations mean it is an issue that will require ever more attention in years to come. Apes’ slow life histories mean that last-minute rescue efforts will not be effective. Stanford’s message, which is strongly echoed by most other great ape researchers, is clear - it’s now or never.

Planet without Apes

By Craig B. Stanford

Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2pp, £19.95

ISBN 9780674067042

Published 25 November 2012

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