EN­DAN­GERED SPECIES

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - — Sarah Halzack

PLANET WITH­OUT APES By Craig B. Stan­ford Belk­nap/Har­vard Univ. 262 pp. $25.95

Just over 100 years from now, it is pos­si­ble that nearly all of the world’s great apes will have van­ished. The for­est habi­tats of go­ril­las, chim­panzees, bono­bos and orang­utans are rapidly dis­ap­pear­ing, of­ten turned into farm­land. Disease, poach­ing and other chal­lenges fur­ther im­peril our clos­est ge­netic cousins and have pushed them to the brink of ex­tinc­tion.

In “Planet With­out Apes,” pri­ma­tol­o­gist Craig B. Stan­ford ex­am­ines the threats to apes’ sur­vival and ex­plores ap­proaches to re­vers­ing or at least neu­tral­iz­ing those pres­sures. He re­veals a com­plex web of cul­tural, so­cial, eco­nomic and bi­o­log­i­cal is­sues that ex­plain why this prob­lem is so ex­ceed­ingly dif­fi­cult to solve.

The book’s most il­lu­mi­nat­ing sec­tion fo­cuses on eco­tourism. In this prac­tice, a coun­try that is home to a large pop­u­la­tion of apes pro­tects the an­i­mals and their en­vi­ron­ment as tourist at­trac­tions. Vis­i­tors shell out hun­dreds of dol­lars to view the an­i­mals, usu­ally go­ril­las, in their nat­u­ral habi­tats. Go­rilla tourism has be­come a lead­ing source of rev­enue for coun­tries such as Uganda and Rwanda.

Con­ser­va­tion­ists and sci­en­tists have mixed re­ac­tions to eco­tourism. On one hand, it cre­ates rich eco­nomic in­cen­tives for im­pov­er­ished African and Asian na­tions to crack down on poach­ing and to stop raz­ing the an­i­mals’ for­est homes. But when apes are reg­u­larly vis­ited by hu­mans, they are more vul­ner­a­ble to our dis­eases, which can dev­as­tate en­tire an­i­mal com­mu­ni­ties. For ex­am­ple, pneu­mo­nia spread through a pop­u­la­tion of go­ril­las in an eco­tourism-friendly area of East Africa in 1990, and two an­i­mals died. Other ev­i­dence sug­gests that dis­eases such as po­lio and sca­bies have passed from hu­mans to an­i­mals in places where they have fre­quent con­tact.

While Stan­ford clearly de­fines the na­ture and scope of th­ese thorny is­sues, he is weaker when mak­ing his broader point: that we should care deeply about th­ese species’ sur­vival. He makes the case that our treat­ment of apes has amounted to “geno­cide.” He also ar­gues that the line be­tween hu­man and ape is so blurry that we may one day re­gret our treat­ment of th­ese an­i­mals in the same way that we are ashamed of how we once treated dis­en­fran­chised groups of peo­ple.

“Al­low­ing [apes] to die would be like al­low­ing our ex­tended fam­ily to die,” Stan­ford writes. His es­sen­tial point is that they are close kin to hu­mans, and their sim­i­lar­i­ties to us are an ob­vi­ous cue that we must work for their sur­vival.

But that ar­gu­ment would be more per­sua­sive if it ad­dressed broader ques­tions. Why should we draw the line at pro­tect­ing apes and not other pri­mates? Does pro­tect­ing the world’s ape pop­u­la­tion ad­vance the broader con­ser­va­tion move­ment in dis­tinct, inim­itable ways? Are there spe­cial ben­e­fits to ecosys­tems or economies that have large pop­u­la­tions of apes? The ex­plo­ration of th­ese and other tough ques­tions might have lent nu­ance and rich­ness to Stan­ford’s case.

halza­cks@wash­post.com

MARCO LON­GARI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES

A sil­ver­back go­rilla in Rwanda, one of the coun­tries that of­fers tourists a chance to see the an­i­mals in their nat­u­ral habi­tats.

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