Great Ape survival on the agenda in Paris

Born Free attends UN body on great ape conservation.

A large group of people standing together

Delegates at the GRASP meeting in Paris

Born Free delegates were among 70 attendees at the United Nations Great Ape Survival Partnership (GRASP) meeting in Paris, this December – just the third full Council meeting in the organisation’s 22-year history.

GRASP, of which Born Free is a founding partner, is a unique alliance of range state and supportive governments, research institutions, United Nations agencies, non-government organisations, and private sector actors, which aims to collaboratively address great ape habitat loss and population declines.

Jointly hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Council meeting took place in UNESCO’s building in the French capital, with delegates representing bodies ranging from governments, and international organisations, to law enforcement agencies and rescue centres attending. Uniquely among United Nations organisations, the GRASP partners all have equal standing within the partnership.

Head of Policy Dr Mark Jones, who attended on behalf of Born Free, said: “Great apes are our closest living relatives, yet most populations across Africa and Asia are in serious decline. These species are critical to the health and resilience of the habitats they occupy, which in turn are critical to our own survival. Yet we continue to encroach upon and fragment great ape habitat, converting it for slash-and-burn agriculture, cash crop production or development, exposing great apes to diseases, and opening up formerly inaccessible ape habitats to wildlife poachers and traffickers. These threats, alongside climate change and pollution, are devastating great apes and their populations. If we can’t protect our closest living relatives, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the natural world.

“GRASP has an important role to play in ensuring great apes are front and centre of global conservation efforts, and in engaging the local communities that live close to great apes on which their future is so closely dependent.”

At the meeting, opportunities to leverage international agreements and commitments including the Global Biodiversity Framework, the Convention on Migratory Species, and the climate talks, in order to improve great ape conservation, were identified, alongside the importance of responsible great ape ecotourism, and the need to tackle poaching and trafficking of live apes and parts and products derived from them.

Delegates were provided with details of the A.P.E.S. database, which is managed by the IUCN’s Section on Great Apes and is designed to provide up-to-date information on the status of apes, in order to assist conservation efforts. The database, which was started in 2005, contains data sets from 800 field sites. Currently around 600-800 thousand great apes are thought to exist across their range, although this represents a roughly 50% decline over three generations, or the average lifetime of a single great ape. For such slow reproducing species, this puts apes into what was described as a ‘conservation vortex’. Only mountain gorillas have increased in number, with those living in the Virungas on the eastern edge of the Congo Basin among the species that are the focus of the Vanishing Treasures programme funded by the Government of Luxembourg.

Presentations at the meeting also covered the impacts of diseases on great ape populations (Ebola killed up to 80% of great apes in some areas affected by the epidemic in West Africa in the early 2000s), the Great Ape Seizures Database and associated law enforcement and forensics efforts to combat great ape trafficking, and innovative financing opportunities for great ape conservation.

GRASP has an essential role in coordinating great ape protection efforts but suffers from a lack of sufficient long-term funding to enable the Secretariat to carry out its activities effectively.

A new GRASP Executive Committee was elected, a new strategy for the Partnership was discussed, and new Rules of Procedure adopted at the meeting to facilitate collaboration going forward. A working group on illegal trade was established, with further working groups planned. The idea of including gibbons (lesser apes) in the mandate of the partnership was discussed and agreed in principle, although a final decision was delayed pending the procurement of further funding.

Mark Jones continued: “GRASP provides a unique framework where the partners can work together as equals to find ways forward, and it’s vital that the initiatives and ideas emerging from the meeting are taken forward by the Partners and the wider conservation community without delay. To help enable this, it is equally vital that the United Nations recognises the value of the GRASP partnership and secures adequate funding to enable it to continue and expand its efforts to coordinate great ape conservation and protection long into the future.”

Born Free’s Guardians of Dja project in Cameroon fosters co-existence between the chimpanzees and gorillas who live in the Dja Faunal Reserve, and the local communities living alongside. Born Free also supports Limbe Wildlife Centre in Cameroon, a highly respected sanctuary for chimpanzees, gorillas and other primates, and the Orangutan Foundation in Indonesia, which rescues, rehabilitates and releases injured or orphaned orangutans back into safe areas in the wild. We also work hard to improve protection for great apes and other wild animals against the threats of habitat destruction, disease, trade and trafficking, through our advocacy work with governments and international organisations.

You can help by adopting a gorilla or an orangutan, or by donating directly to Born Free to support our conservation, rescue, policy and education work.