Last hope for great apes is vaccination against the rapid onslaught of disease

Apr 10, 2016

Photo credit: A.J.Plumptre/WCS

By Robin McKie

Vaccine campaigns to protect wild chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans could be the only hope of preventing the planet’s remaining great apes from suffering catastrophic population crashes, scientists have warned.

They say that recent surveys of several populations of great apes have revealed devastating drops in numbers and that protective steps must now be taken as a matter of urgency.

One report, published last week, revealed that numbers of Grauer’s gorilla, the largest of all the great apes, had plunged from 17,000 to fewer than 4,000 over the past 20 years. Other reports have said that devastating forest fires in Indonesia, in addition to the spread of palm oil plantations, have wiped out thousands of square miles of rainforest, the home of the orang-utan. Again, species numbers have plummeted.

“Several factors are involved in the terrible losses that are occurring in our fellow great apes,” said Peter Walsh, a primate ecologist at Cambridge. “However, diseases – some spread by humans – are the ones that we can do most about in the short term.”

Three main human-induced impacts are blamed for the devastation of great ape numbers in recent years:

■ Habitat loss. Swaths of jungle in Asia have been turned to palm oil plantations and have brought the orang-utan to the edge of extinction in many areas. Now oil companies are eyeing up central Africa for similar treatment;

■ Bushmeat. Eating chimpanzee and gorilla meat has become a widespread source of protein in several countries in central Africa and has depleted numbers further;

■ Disease. Epidemics such as Ebola fever have affected humans, but also chimps and gorillas. The latter suffered a death toll of tens of thousands during the last outbreak.

In addition, the sale of baby chimps and gorillas to China – where they are being bought as pets – has emerged as a new threat in the past few years.


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