Sunday, October 31, 2004

EATING APES TO EXTINCTION

Great apes face extinction

Chained by the neck to a concrete outhouse for 12 years, it was not much of a life. But given the alternative, Julie was lucky.

Bought for £60 as an infant, this suburban yard in Douala, Cameroon's commercial capital, was the only home she knew.

Slamming her hands on the ground, screaming, the family pet was evidently in distress but at least she had survived, unlike most great apes in central Africa.

After being captured with her in the jungle Julie's parents almost certainly ended up in a cooking pot as bushmeat, a trade which is driving chimpanzees and gorillas towards extinction.

Young chimps like Julie are more valuable as pets but as they grow strong and wild they can also end up as bushmeat or as prisoners, chained to a wall.

In this case there was a happy ending. Fed up with her angry and out-of-control pet, the owner contacted a wildlife centre at nearby Limbe to take her away.

After being tranquilised and having her chain broken Julie was lifted into a cage and driven to Limbe to be quarantined for three months and introduced to other chimps who have also been rescued.

Whether she will integrate is uncertain. 'This animal thinks it is a human. She has never seen another chimpanzee,' said Livia Wittiger, a biologist at the centre.

Most great apes in the Congo basin never get that chance. An estimated one to five million tonnes of bushmeat is eaten here every year, its value ranging from £10 million to £100m in different countries....

Western chimpanzees have disappeared from Benin, Gambia and Togo and fewer than 1,000 remain in Senegal, Ghana and Guinea-Bissau. The UN environmental agency has warned that we are destroying a bridge to our origins - humans share more than 96 per cent of their DNA with great apes.

Hunting and eating great apes has been illegal for a decade but it is only recently that the trade went underground, partly because since last year any restaurant caught serving meat from endangered animals faces up to three years in prison and a $16,000 (£8,700) fine.

...Chimp and gorilla meat has been found in Europe but is usually consumed in central and western Africa.

Babies have been sold as pets but nine out of 10 have died from disease and neglect, said Felix Lankester, of the Limbe Wildlife Centre. As awareness of the problem grows more of those pets which survive will be rescued. 'It's not too late, but there is not a lot of hope left for the great apes. They are spiralling into extinction.'