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Sunday 23 October 2016

Four out of six great apes are now critically endangered as 'global extinction crisis' escalates

Published 05/09/2016 | 08:09

The largest primate on Earth – the eastern gorilla – is now “critically endangered”
The largest primate on Earth – the eastern gorilla – is now “critically endangered”

The largest primate on Earth – the eastern gorilla – is now “critically endangered”, it has been officially announced after a staggering decline in their population in just 20 years.

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The decision by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) means that four out of the six great apes – both types of gorilla and both types of orangutan – are feared to be on the brink of extinction.

It would perhaps not be surprising if they were to die out. Of more than 82,000 species assessed by the IUCN, nearly 30 per cent are facing that fate – almost entirely because of the actions of humans.

Geologists are currently considering reclassifying the Earth’s present geological epoch as the Anthropocene – a name that reflects the extent of our impact on the planet – partly because of what some scientists are already calling the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth. If they are correct, it is a slaughter comparable to the disappearance of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, when a massive asteroid is thought to have hit what is now Mexico, sending a blanket of thick smoke around the Earth.

The new critically endangered classification for the eastern lowland gorilla, also known as Grauer's gorilla, was announced at the IUCN’s World Conservation Congress in Hawaii after researchers found its population had fallen by at least 77 per cent in just two decades.

The other type of eastern gorilla, the mountain gorilla, numbers only a few hundred.

Inger Andersen, the IUCN’s director-general, said: “To see the eastern gorilla – one of our closest cousins – slide towards extinction is truly distressing.

“We live in a time of tremendous change and each IUCN Red List update makes us realise just how quickly the global extinction crisis is escalating.

“Conservation action does work and we have increasing evidence of it. It is our responsibility to enhance our efforts to turn the tide and protect the future of our planet.”

The updated IUCN’s Red List now includes 82,954 species of which 23,928 – 28.8 per cent – are threatened with extinction. Other species added to those in trouble include the plains zebra, which has moved from the “least concern” category to “near threatened” after a 24 per cent decrease in its population in 14 years from 660,000 to about 500,000, largely because of hunting.

Three species of African antelope – the bay duiker, white-bellied duiker and yellow-backed duiker – were also moved from least concern to near threatened.

But it is perhaps the prospect of losing the gorillas that is the most shocking.

Mountain gorillas have been critically endangered for 20 years with only about 300 mature individuals left, although recently wildlife tourism has been credited with helping their numbers start to recover.

Two decades ago, Grauer’s gorilla had a relatively healthy population of some 17,000. But the "Great African War" which broke out in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the late 1990s turned the area into one of the most violent places on the planet. Despite the formal end of the conflict in 2003, armed gangs continue to control parts of the forests where the gorillas live – largely because of the money to be made from mining for gold, diamonds and metals such as coltan, which is used in mobile phones.

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