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Heading toward a world without apes

Gorillas are among the four species of great apes vanishing from the planet.

Great apes could face extinction within our lifetime, USC biologist Craig Stanford warns in a book that will be published on Nov. 5.

The four species of great apes — chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos and gorillas — are being decimated through disease, loss of habitat, regional political instability and even consumption as “bushmeat.” Already endangered, our closest evolutionary cousins could disappear within a generation, Stanford said.

“Allowing them to die would be like allowing one’s extended family to die,” said Stanford, who added that Planet Without Apes is a literary effort to raise awareness of the plummeting population levels among the primates.

Stanford, co-director of the USC Jane Goodall Research Center and professor of biological sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, has studied the animals on three continents, including more than 20 years in East Africa and early years spent with famed primatologist Goodall.

“Great apes are our next of kin,” Stanford said. “They are endlessly fascinating, and they inform us about the nature of being human.”

In the book, Stanford describes the value of building an ape-centered ecotourism industry that employs locals and uses tourist dollars to give the apes’ neighbors a tangible stake in their conservation.

Gorilla-trekking has given African governments and local people an economic incentive to protect the apes. Ecotourism has almost halted poaching in some areas, as it has made the animals more valuable alive and well than dead, he said.

“I am hopeful that great apes will survive our current biodiversity crisis, just as North American mammals barely did in the 19th century,” Stanford said.

Though many readers will not be surprised to learn that great apes have been pushed out of their habitat by logging and mining operations, the extent to which apes are hunted for food can be a shock. Black market operations export ape meat all over the world, where wealthy emigrant populations that ate bush meat as a traditional food now pay top dollar for it as a delicacy, according to Stanford.

The USC Dornsife researcher also explores the ethical quandary that scientists face when performing tests on great apes. The similarity to humans that makes them ideal test subjects also raises significant moral questions.

“There are many people dedicating their lives to protecting great apes and their habitat,” Stanford said. “I wrote Planet Without Apes because we continue to need to raise awareness. I’m always amazed at how many people have no idea the perilous state that all the great apes are currently in.”

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