Cary Institute presents talk on great apes

September 18--Dr. Annette Lanjouw is a globally respected primatologist who is helping conserve and protect threatened populations of great apes.  She was invited to the Cary Institute to speak about her work.  She works with the Arcus Foundation, perhaps the largest foundation funding ape conservation work globally. For 15 years, Annette was the Director of the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP), a partnership to protect the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, Uganda, and Democratic Republic of Congo.

She has carried on the important work of Dian Fossey in protecting the endangered gorilla in Africa, in dangerous and war-torn areas.  She also works to protect chimpanzees, orangutans and bonobos and to restore their habitat in such areas such as Borneo where deforestation is rampant.

1173 Photo by Annette Lanjouw

Dr. Lanjouw, wearing chic bumblebee yellow and black striped pants, jumped from the personal to the objective throughout her talk.   She explained that conservation of wilderness areas in Africa and South Asia is complex, as many of the actions proposed represent only one perspective: that of a human, from the industrialized world. It neglects that many different perspectives that are equally valid, such as those of people living in very rural and remote areas in Africa and Southeast Asia, or even those of non-human animals. 

“We are but one species on the planet and yet we feel the other species are there for our own exploitation. We seem to think we are more sentient and valuable than other beings,” she said in her opening remarks.

“Our challenge is not to halt development, but to decouple economic development from the many negative environmental consequences thereof.  We need ‘no go zones,’ such as the Arctic and World Heritage Sites, but we also need to develop landscapes that balance and give importance to both economic development as well as conservation. 

She described the threats to the great apes saying that their legal protection does not prevent people from hunting and eating them.  

“We are losing their habitats across the world.  The threats are economic development, population growth, the greater purchasing power of the middle class, globalization and disease.

She showed photos of tiny fragments of forest surrounded by huge plantations, such as oil palm, in many areas around the world and explained how this isolates the apes and shrinks their habitat.  Gibbons are the most affected by habitat loss, she said, since they get trapped in little forest areas.  Chimpanzees do better surviving in degraded landscapes, although this often places them in direct conflict with humans.  Orangutans, contrary to what was previously though,  mostly live outside protected areas.  

Apes are very intelligent said Lanjouw, and changes in landscape have caused them to adapt, and some have managed to survive in degraded landscapes. As long as there is food and nesting sites. These changes in the landscape not only affect the apes but also affected how scientists view conservation, and the need to reconcile conservation with economic development.  

One of the main challenges is the production of palm oil, as well as coconut oil. Both oils are grown exclusively in tropical zones. The majority of palm oil production comes from Malaysia and Indonesia, with vast areas of forest deforested for the creation of plantations. This has had a devastating effect on the orangutans.  There is now very little habitat left in Borneo.  

“We have known about the deforestation effects on apes.  We know about climate change.  Changes have been made, the impact of local actions are important. But we still have a mental block globally.  We still have an economic growth mentality.  We are not doing enough to protect the lives of future generations of apes or people.”

Dr. Lanjouw explained that we only take action only when it becomes personal to us. 

Lanjouw gave examples of how each ape has a unique charismatic personality.  They have emotional connections with each other.  

“We learned to care about individual animals. One gorilla loved seeing his reflection in the camera.  Another xilverback gorilla was able to figure out how dangerous poacher’s wire snares were, causing injury and even death to animals that were caught in them. It is remarkable that he learnt to destroy every snare he came across, even when none of his family were directly in danger of getting caught. The life of each individual animal is precious, and matters..” 1174 Photo by Annette Lanjouw

So how can we impact this scenario, queried a member of the audience?  It is complex, says Lanjouw, and easy to feel powerless.  Each of us has one tool:  our power as a consumer.  Do not buy from unsustainable companies. [Two websites were mentioned from the audience:  for a list of brands that use palm oil, and www. for climate change]  Palm oil is everywhere on our shelves: in popcorn, in cookies like Chips Ahoy, in shampoo.  So by choosing to only buy products that are “clean” and use sustainably harvested palm oil, that do not contribute to deforestation, have eco-friendly contents and supply chains, and that minimize their use of petro-chemicals (and thus plastics), you are actively supporting an economic model that will, eventually put the “dirty” producers out of business. 

Poaching of apes is still a huge problem. Illegal hunting and poaching occur throughout all ape ranges. Yet the solution cannot be stopping people from hunting, as hunting is their only source of animal protein. The solution is in halting the hunting of endangered, and protected species, says Lanjouw.

“ We have to take a nuanced approach to poaching.  We need to look at alternatives, for people to be able to do small animal husbandry or look at different alternatives to these highly endangered species.”  

Conservationists are now working with palm oil companies, to try to achieve zero-deforestation, create forest corridors for animals and avoid polluting riverways.   It is also important to develop viable businesses with communities so people can diversify their activities.  

 “Failure to achieve sustainable development feeds into the failure of being able to protect biodiversity and ecosystems and many species, including the great apes.”