YOU WOULDN’T STAND BY and watch a family member suffer without trying to help. Neither will USC biologist Craig Stanford.
With the great apes — our closest evolutionary cousins — facing extinction, Stanford is passionately advocating for them before they disappear. The four species of great apes — chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos and gorillas — are being decimated through disease, loss of habitat, political instability and even consumption as “bushmeat.” Already endangered, they could disappear within our lifetimes, says Stanford, who recently published the book Planet Without Apes and hit the media circuit to bring attention to apes’ plight.
“Allowing them to die,” he says, “would be like allowing one’s extended family to die.”
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, should know. He’s studied primates on three continents over the past 25 years.
He launched his career with renowned anthropologist Jane Goodall in East Africa in 1990 thanks to a simple letter. While living in a rice paddy in Asia and completing doctoral work at the University of California, Berkeley, Stanford wrote to Goodall, asking to work with her.
“I did not even expect to hear back — it was my message in a bottle,” Stanford says. “Instead, when I returned to the U.S. months later, her reply was in my mailbox, inviting me to come to Gombe to work with her. I always tell my students that you never know what good things may come from a letter sent with a dream.”
Stanford was one of the few foreign researchers allowed in the area since several college students were kidnapped there in the 1970s. Now he figures he’s spent about seven years in all in remote bush camps throughout the world. These days, though, he spends more time in the U.S., working with students and collaborating on research.
Planet Without Apes, published by Harvard University Press in 2012, is Stanford’s 15th book. It not only makes the great ape crisis understandable to the average reader, but it also proposes tangible solutions that could give apes a chance.
“Threats to great ape survival are complex but urgent, so expert advocates like Craig are very valuable for education and conservation efforts,” says Maureen McCarthy, one of Stanford’s graduate students who studies chimpanzees in Uganda.
One interesting tidbit Stanford spotlights: Cell phones are part of the problem for great apes. Certain capacitors for electronic devices such as cell phones are built using tantalum, an element extracted from the mineral coltan. Eighty percent of the world’s coltan supply is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the heart of the remaining habitat of eastern lowland gorillas.
With the world hungry for electronics, miners in the region are extracting ore — and destroying and polluting gorilla habitat.
Some also hunt the apes for food. Black-market operations export ape meat all over the world, where wealthy emigrant populations that ate bushmeat as a traditional food now pay top dollar for
it as a delicacy, Stanford says.
Stanford proposes encouraging an ape-centered ecotourism industry that employs locals, using tourist dollars to give the apes’ neighbors a tangible stake in 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 than dead. Coupled with tough import/export regulations to combat the thriving black-market trade in bushmeat, ecotourism may off er apes a lifeline.
“There are many people dedicating their lives to protecting great apes and their habitat,” Stanford says. “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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