Great apes: Their fate is ours

We need new people, new tools and new ideas to ensure a future for great apes – that was the key message from the 2013 Great Apes Summit.

24 October 2013
Bornean orangutan. Photo: Terry Sunderland

Bornean orangutan. Photo: Copyright Terry Sunderland

"Conservation is not the exclusive domain of conservationists," said Annette Lanjouw, Arcus Foundation.

"We need to tell our stories better," said Doug Cress, Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP).

"We need to harness the power of consumers," said Jane Goodall, Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute.

These quotes highlight the main themes running through the Great Apes Summit: we need new people, new tools and new ideas to ensure a future for great apes. And we need them now. The summit took place in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, United States, in September 2013.

Great ape populations in the wild are dwindling. If current estimates of future economic growth are to be trusted, in the next 20 years we will see a huge increase in pressure on extractive industries and industrial scale agriculture in the countries that host great ape populations. This will inevitably mean further habitat loss for great apes.

Today, the biggest threat to great apes, many agree, comes from the expansion of oil palm plantations. Oil palm has already changed the landscape in Indonesia and Malaysia, drastically restricting the habitat of orangutans. Further forest concessions in this part of the world are currently being negotiated, which could mean an end to orangutans in the wild. Now the oil palm plantations are moving to Africa.

What will happen then? Will the fate of gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos soon become under threat in the same way? Or can we use what we have learned from experience in Indonesia and Malaysia to minimise the impacts of oil palm plantations on already threatened animal species in Africa?

There was little doubt among the participants at the Great Apes Summit that extractive industries and large-scale plantations are here to stay.

Since we share an interest in the same areas of the world, we need to find a way to talk to each other. We need to start speaking the same language. We need to engage with multinationals much earlier on in the planning process of new commercial ventures, so we can reduce the impacts such projects have on great apes. And businesses need to start taking responsibility for their actions.

Shared responsibility and benefits

Great apes may only be found in Central Africa and South East Asia, but they play a key role in maintaining the biodiversity in those areas, which in turns benefits everyone around the world.

And while it is true that people living in so-called developed countries are not (for the vast majority!) killing apes or cutting down trees with their own two hands, we are all responsible for what is happening in these parts of the world.

We are all consumers of oil palm products. We all have dealings with banks that invest money in mining or oil businesses. Consumers can play a key role in the conservation of great apes by ‘using their dollars to express their opinions’, a phrase that I often heard repeated throughout the Summit. They can choose to buy only those products produced following high ethical standards, and boycott the companies behaving unethically.

New voices

The Great Apes Summit was held in conjunction with the biennial Wildlife Film Festival in order to bring new voices into the debate. Who better than wildlife filmmakers and media people to help us harness consumer power to conserve great apes?

"We as a community -- primatologists, conservationists, etc -- are not very good at communicating," Doug Cress reminded us. We tend to use a language that is inaccessible to the general public. We need communicators, like filmmakers, to tell our stories so that we can mobilise consumers, who in turn can significantly influence businesses.

Grounds for optimism

On a personal level, I found attending the Great Apes Summit akin to an emotional rollercoaster. For four days we heard many tales of hope for the destiny of our close relatives, quickly followed by as many (if not more) tales of gloom and despair. However, a quick show of hands on the last day of the Summit demonstrated that the majority of participants – largely people who have dedicated their entire lives to great apes conservation – were optimistic regarding their chances for survival. 

To ensure this optimism is well founded, we need action and we need it now. We cannot let this become just ‘another meeting’ held in a beautiful hotel.

We need more of the many things identified by speaker after speaker:

  • more partnerships, especially with multinationals and other commercial enterprises
  • improved information sharing, and
  • new ways to communicate our stories with global consumers.

And this requires getting everyone on board and committed: conservationists, private companies, governments, researchers, consumers, local communities, etc.

"It is a gloomy time," said Jane Goodall at the summit, "but there are still many inspirational people committed to great apes conservation." And this is a good reason to remain hopeful.

Find out how IIED is linking ape conservation with poverty alleviation

Great Apes Summit website

Watch an interview with Jane Goodall at the Summit

About the author

Alessandra Giuliani's picture