On June 25, 2008, in the Congress of Deputies, Joan Herrera (IC-Verdes) warned, more than a decade in advance, of the danger that pandemics represent for all hominids. He presented a Non-Legal Proposal, similar to the one presented by Francisco Garrido (PSOE-Verdes) on April 25, 2006, asking for a Great Apes Law that would give all hominids the necessary protection, inside and outside Spain, to withstand the onslaught of a global virus. Nobody imagined the proportions that the pandemic would have, although we should be used to the fact that, when we are alerted to an ecological danger, things end up being much worse than announced.
The arrival of the coronavirus in Africa and Southeast Asia endangers the nine remaining species of non-human hominids: chimpanzees, bonobos, Bornean, Sumatran and Tapanuli orangutans, and eastern, western, mountain and of the Cross River.
All non-human hominids are highly vulnerable to human respiratory diseases and almost all are still unvaccinated. Therefore, it could be assumed that the virus represents a greater danger for them than the economic impact of the pandemic. However, so far this has not been the case. The economic impact of the pandemic was harsh in almost all countries. But while the most developed have ended up benefiting from the savings in time and money that teleworking and automation entail, others continue to be affected by the health debt and the drop in tourism. The significant injection of foreign currency provided by the foreign teams making documentaries, and the lodging and provisioning of scientists, photographers and tourists, were essential for the local economies of the places where there are still apes. And in addition to the informal lookout work that these people already did, there were guides and park guards, dissuading poachers, armed groups, and coal, coltan, and palm oil mafias. As Peter Singer and I explained in ape rights (Trotta, 2022), the virus broke this precarious balance.
With his arrival everything stopped. People were absent from their usual places of work and even Jane Goodall’s camp in Gombe, which had not stopped for any reason in sixty years, setting the world record for the longest uninterrupted scientific study of another species in history, It had to close due to the coronavirus. The second longest study, that of Biruté Galdikas in Indonesia, was able to continue thanks to the fact that, from the Great Ape Project, we raised funds to buy masks and disinfectants that allowed volunteers to continue treating orangutans without infecting them with the disease.
The precarious balance was upset as people absent from their usual places of work and unemployment coincided with a lack of funds for surveillance and conservation. And in troubled rivers, hunters gain. Incursions into ape territories in search of resources or directly in search of our evolutionary brothers intensified. They entered to capture them alive to sell them to zoos, individuals and tourist attractions, such as boxing tournaments and plays that require orangutans to be represented in countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia. And they also entered to capture them dead, to make trophies with their heads, ashtrays with their hands, and twenty finger amulets for each ape. They even entered to eat them, which in turn poses a high risk of new zoonotic pandemics. Forest rangers were found dead, sometimes even six together, and numerous apes that had managed to hide from their pursuers, even badly injured, were not saved because no one found them in time.
Every time an area runs out of great apes, it not only loses its great tourist attraction, but also part of the funds dedicated to conservation. With this, it enters the vicious circle again: more poverty, less surveillance, more insecurity, more incursions into natural parks to plow, extract resources or hunt, less biodiversity, more species trafficking, and more pandemics. If we don’t break this vicious circle, the situation on the planet can only get worse.
As he always emphasizes Fernando Valladares, low biodiversity is the great enemy of public health; and as he always emphasizes jane goodall, the great enemy of biodiversity is poverty. Poverty increases poaching, which ends up generating more poverty and more pandemics, which, in turn, will generate more poverty and increasingly affect ape populations as their size continues to decline.
The relationship between the size of a population and the severity of a pandemic is multiple. If there are more individuals, first, there is a better chance that some will survive; and second, there will tend to be more genetic diversity, so there will be more immune or behavioral responses and more chances that some of them will allow survival. Most species reproduce sexually, either with hermaphroditism, sex change, or in the traditional mammalian fashion, because offspring born to two individuals are more varied than those born to just one. Species that are cloned are immensely vulnerable: a mere change in temperature can cause them, being all the same, to die suddenly. Third, the more individuals, the easier it is to avoid inbreeding, thus maintaining more diverse, healthy, and resilient populations.
When there are few individuals, such as in hatcheries or zoos, and as is beginning to happen with the Tapanuli and Cross River gorillas, they are more likely to end up interbreeding with relatives. This reduces health and immunity, and increases mortality. One of the reasons for this is that the worst hereditary pathologies are transmitted because they are hidden in recessive genes. The carrier of a single copy of a recessive gene reproduces like anyone else because it does not manifest the handicap or disease. The more related the parents are, the greater the chances that the children will receive two copies of the same gene that affects that family, and can no longer escape its manifestation. studies of Robert Trivers show that, in humans, this occurs with Hindus and Muslims who, forced or pressured, marry between cousins and within the same caste, and in other animals, in captive populations. When free, both humans and other animals flee inbreeding like the plague.
This is one of the reasons why approaching extinction not only harms the species, but also the individual, which is why environmental and animal rights concerns converge here. And given the economic hardship of the human populations that coexist with the other hominid populations, it is necessary to join forces and call for international cooperation so that our evolutionary brothers do not disappear.
Enacting a Law on Hominids or Great Apes in Spain, in addition to offering much-needed protection to all hominids in the country, would help the United Nations sign a Universal Declaration of Hominid Rights. This, in turn, would bring us closer to an international recognition of animal rights.
For all these reasons, it is very important that you send [email protected] a letter addressed to the General Directorate for Animal Rights, of the Ministry of Social Rights and the 2030 Agenda, in support of the Law on Hominids or Great Apes on which they are working. It is an essential piece to save the apes and to break the vicious circle that is destroying the planet.