Great Apes | Earth Day Network

What You Need to Know About Great Apes and Why We Need to Protect Them

Facts about Great Apes

  • Great apes are comprised of four general species: gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos.
  • Gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos are found throughout central Sub-Saharan Africa, while orangutans are found in either Malaysia or Indonesia.
  • Mountain gorillas live in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lowland gorillas live in the forests of central and western Africa in Angola, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
  • Although the populations of great apes have been in constant decline, the mountain gorilla population has now risen above 1,000 since 2010, even though they are still one of the most endangered[1] It is a rare success story, mostly due to sustained and well-funded conservation efforts.[2] Tourism also contributes to this effort. Tourists pay up to $1,500 an hour to watch gorillas, and the funding pays for rangers that must constantly follow and protect mountain gorillas against poachers.
  • The eastern lowland gorillas have been declining the fastest: 77% of its overall population has been lost in the last two decades.[3]
  • In the last century, the population of chimpanzees has declined severely, from two million to approximately 300,000.[4] The Bornean orangutan, native to the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia, has lost more than half of its population — 150,000 — since 1999.[5] Bonobos are anticipated to decline by 50% over the course of the next few decades.[6]
  • The size of these animals differs greatly: the eastern lowland gorilla towers at six feet when fully upright and weighs nearly 460 pounds, while the bonobo, also found in the central regions of the DRC, stands just over 3½ feet tall and weighs 85 pounds.
  • Great apes are the animals with the closest DNA to humans. They also share another similarity with us: our altruism. Bonobos have been observed to share their food with others outside of their immediate group to ensure that every animal has enough to eat.[7]
  • Although many animals have been observed to use tools, great apes have shown the greatest intelligence using them.[8] Most notably, great apes have been known to gather tools and save them for future tasks, demonstrating cognitive abilities much like humans.[9]

Why We Need to Protect Great Apes

  • Role in the Ecosystem: Great apes are especially important in helping spread the seeds of trees in the forests they inhabit. In some areas, the survival of the ecosystem is wholly dependent on the role that apes play in spreading seeds through their fecal matter.[10] Without great apes, new trees could not grow. In Gabon, the western lowland gorilla and central chimpanzee have had a 68% germination rate for the seeds of vital tree species in the region.[11]
  • Economic Contribution: When conducted in a sustainable and eco-friendly way, great ape tourism can be an important source of revenue for local communities. Revenue from ecotourism differs greatly from country to country. Rwanda’s travel and tourism industry in 2016-2017 contributed more than $400 million to the national economy — 10 percent of which is returned to local communities.[12] At an orangutan rehabilitation center in Malaysia, the site brought in annual revenue of $243,000, which helped to protect the orangutans and their habitat.[13]

Threats to Great Apes

  • Habitat Loss: Since 1900, great apes have lost an estimated 50% of their habitat globally.[14] The loss of their habitat is primarily due to the expansion of agriculture, logging, and urban development.[15] The degradation affects the survival of great apes by removing both their food supply and shelter.
  • Palm Oil: Deforestation is the main driver of the orangutan’s habitat loss. The production and consumption of palm oil in a wide range of products — from food to beauty products — has led to a significant drop in orangutan populations. If consumer trends for palm oil are not reversed soon, a substantial amount of the species’ habitat will be lost in the coming years.[16]
  • Competition for Resources: As humans continue to encroach on the habitat of great apes, resource contention will harm both them — and us.[17] Increased contact and interaction is a threat to great apes, with susceptibility to disease, restrictions on their dietary habits, and even the distribution of the animals themselves.[18]
  • Climate Change: Among the greatest threats from climate change are prolonged droughts, decreased rainfall and forest fires, which limits the availability of food and destroys habitat.[19]
  • Illegal Trade and Captivity: Over the last decade, close to 1,000 orangutans, most in their infancy, were illegally hunted and sold.[20] Great apes are either killed for their bushmeat, a valuable commodity on the black market, or they are captured and sold for personal captivity in zoos and homes around the world.[21]

What You Can Do to Help Protect Great Apes

  • Avoid palm oil: The presence of palm oil in everyday products — from the food we eat to the products we use for skincare — is widespread and is causing significant habitat loss and population declines. As consumers, one of the first steps we can take is to refuse to buy products that contain palm oil, thereby reducing the continued demand.[22] Additionally, pressure must be put on companies to adopt sustainable and ecological-friendly practices for palm oil cultivation.[23]
  • Promote sustainable forestry: Human population growth does not mean that the survival of great apes is automatically threatened.[24] Sustainable forestry can lead to both the protection of great apes and further economic development.[25] A good starting point for promoting sustainable development can be when you commit to purchasing paper and wood products that have been certified as sustainable by a reputable entity. You can learn more about the different types of eco-labeling, here.