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Planet Without Apes?

The impending tragic extinction of the great apes does not have to happen, USC Dornsife’s Craig Stanford argues in his new book. The biologist offers some solutions that can help save the apes' existence on Earth into at least the next century.

By Robert Perkins
November 16, 2012

In his latest book, <em>Planet Without Apes</em>, leading primatologist Craig Stanford of USC Dornsife demands that we consider whether we can live with the consequences of wiping our closest relatives off the face of the Earth. Portrait photo by Philip Channing.

In his latest book, Planet Without Apes, leading primatologist Craig Stanford of USC Dornsife demands that we consider whether we can live with the consequences of wiping our closest relatives off the face of the Earth. Portrait photo by Philip Channing.

Great apes could face extinction within our lifetime, biologist Craig Stanford of USC Dornsife warns in his new book Planet Without Apes (Harvard University Press).

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 in USC Dornsife, 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 that all the great apes are in a perilous state.”

Read a story in The Huffington Post written by Stanford about his great ape research.