The Demise of the Great Apes of Africa

April 20th, 2010

By Dr. Kerry Bowman

The great apes of Africa are being pushed to extinction. Across the forest region of West and Central Africa commercial hunting, facilitated by western-owned logging operations in the area, has become the leading threat to the survival of many primates, including gorillas and chimpanzees. This is a wildlife crisis of huge proportion, with impacts on the Great Apes, African economies, ways of life, and human health.

In the utterly remote rain forest of central Africa large populations of lowland gorillas and chimpanzees have been shielded from outside disturbance since before the last Ice Age. In recent years however the drive to sell African rainforest hardwood has had a catastrophic side effect – the explosion of gorilla and chimpanzee hunting for what is known as “bushmeat’. This commerce, facilitated by new logging roads into the pristine forests of the Congo, is now a major wildlife crisis.

The depletion of west Africa’s forests, where Europe traditionally bought its tropical hardwoods, has launched an influx of French, German and Middle Eastern logging companies into the more inaccessible forests of central Africa. At the same time, a regional economic crisis has only accelerated the timber boom: Local currency devaluations in the mid-1990s effectively halved the cost of hauling 800-year-old trees through hundreds of miles of forest to the parquet-flooring and furniture-making markets of Europe and Japan.

Strapped for cash because of slumping cacao exports, the central African governments have gratefully seized a multi-million dollar lifeline created by logging revenues. At the same time, the appetite for wild animal meat is strong in the teeming cities of central Africa. Forest animals including gorillas and chimpanzees, have been a staple of local villagers’ diets for millennia, but Africa’s swelling urban populations, nostalgic for village foods, have turned a subsistence activity into a burgeoning, multimillion-dollar industry.

Newly extended logging roads have become bush meat conduits for poachers who snare and shoot whatever they can. Many logging companies encourage hunting because it also saves the cost of shipping beef or other meat into the remote jungle towns where their workers live.

The bush meat trade is the number one threat to biodiversity in the Congo Basin. A logging road goes in, and soon there isn’t any great apes left in the forests. Thousands of square kilometers have been hunted clean. This bushmeat situation of the central Congo means that all western lowland gorillas as well as chimpanzees and bonobo’s are now under threat. Furthermore, the mountain gorillas and eastern lowland gorillas are under increasing threat from hungry refugees and military due to the wars of the eastern Congo.

To make matters worse we now know bushmeat hunting goes beyond the realm of conservation and the environment. Chimpanzees have been identified as the source of the viruses that have propagated the world AIDS crisis. Furthermore bushmeat could transmit additional variants of SIV which then could mutate and recombine into novel HIV types and further expand the pernicious AIDS plague faced worldwide. Chimpanzees are identical to humans in over 98% of their genome, yet they appear to be resistant to damaging effects of the AIDS virus on their immune system. By studying the biological reasons for this difference, AIDS researchers believe that they may be able to obtain important clues concerning the pathogenic basis of HIV-1 in humans and develop new strategies for treating the disease more effectively. In addition, a better understanding of exactly how the chimpanzee’s immune system responds to SIV-CPZ infection compared to that of humans is also likely to lead to the development of more effective strategies for an HIV-1 vaccine. Coordinated biomedical research and conservation efforts will be key to preventing further spread of SIV/HIV and AIDS. Insisting that logging companies disassociate themselves from all aspects of bushmeat and the establishment of economic alternatives for African hunters holds deeper ramifications than ever before. I have many European colleagues deeply involved in raising awareness about the role of logging companies in this trade.

Because I have a background in cultural studies, social science and ethics, and having worked extensively with primates in the past, I was asked to go to Central Africa to live in a hunter’s camp to better understand local attitudes toward the killing and eating of gorillas and chimpanzees. Being a life-long animal lover and holding conventional Western eating taboos, I was deeply disturbed by what I saw. The contrast between the beauty of the forest all around me, the sound of guns, and the snared, strangled, and mutilated dead animals imbibing the camp was unforgettable. It was a hard test of research objectivity and professional detachment to observe, learn, and encourage open, honest conversation without yielding to any form of interference. Yet the experience was illuminating. The camp was situated at converging forest trails. A steady flow of hunters passed by. Some would often stop for tea, share meals or sometimes spend the night. It was an excellent place to get a glimpse of their world.

I learned that these people were not monstrous and selfish, purposely ignoring an environmental crisis and the suffering of a human-like endangered species; rather, they simply held a different worldview. Their views on the natural world represented a tight weave of fatalism, fundamental Christian beliefs and Animism. Generally people believed the natural world was able to replenish itself. It was God-given and well beyond human influence. People also did not see the environment or animals in finite terms. As one white-haired man put it This is the part of Africa with an abundance of forests and animals; eventually the trees grow back and the animals give birth. What most people were saying implied that people cannot affect the natural environment. A hunter put it this way. It’s natural that animals are going to be eaten. People eat animals. Animals eat each other. That is the way things are. It really doesn’t matter what we say or what laws we have. No one I interviewed saw the death of the great apes in moral terms, rather they saw animals as a God given food supply. As one hunter said: Gorillas are not people. Animals don’t suffer the way people do. They are not the same as us. God has not given them reason and feelings. In reality, the expansion of human moral vision to include the great apes seems to occur only in Western culture, and even there is intermittent.

The blending of cultures and the problems associated with this blending become more urgent as populations soar, as environmental degradation increases, and as biodiversity comes under increasing threat. Although many of us recognise and accept cultural differences on both practical and intellectual levels, we tend to underestimate the implications of these differences. There is a substantial discrepancy between Western views of the environment and African perspectives. In addition, it is dangerous to place a market value on the heads of animals without the tempering effects of Western intellectual and philosophic perspectives related to the importance of biodiversity, the suffering of animals, and concern about environmental degradation.

In the West, many of us believe that saving the great apes — the closest living relatives to humans — is of paramount importance and that social and cultural arguments should be discounted. Yet gorillas and chimpanzees live in Africa, not in the West; their environments have been connected to African human lives and communities for millennia. If the great apes of Africa are to be saved from extinction, they will be saved by Africans. Aligning solutions to African needs and realities becomes essential.

I believe because Western nations created this environmental problem, those nations must assist with interventions that are respectful of African cultures and realities. The gorilla /chimpanzee hunters have been impoverished by the fall in coffee and cocoa prices, and are doing their best to survive in the grim economic realities of Central Africa. They are doing a difficult, sometimes-dangerous job they don’t like. Many are quite afraid of gorillas. All stated they are looking for economic alternatives. Consequently my colleagues and I are developing initiatives described elsewhere on this website.

These interventions are only a beginning. African traditions alone did not create this catastrophe. We must build solutions. Because the Great Apes appear to experience life similarly to humans, I believe that taking the lives of these sentient creatures and causing them suffering raises the same ethical questions as it would for human death and injury. Also, we must now consider the serious global health implications of this trade. With the survival of the Great Apes already in peril, and because humans share as much as 98% of their DNA with apes, through their disappearance it may well be that we could lose part of what it means to be human. These creatures are living fossils. Although I believe all life has meaning, the great apes can be viewed as ambassadors of the biodiversity of the forests; our efforts to save them represent action for the protection and respect for the entire biosphere, including our closest kin.

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