Saving the Apes to Save the World

Story and photos by Ian Redmond, Chairman, Ape Alliance UK

A mother and baby orangutan express their affection.The logic is simple: to save the apes, we must save their habitats—two of the planet's three "green lungs"—in the tropical forests of Africa and Southeast Asia. Fear of climate change has brought the ecological services that these forests provide us to the fore. As a result, there is a growing sense of urgency in efforts to slow deforestation. But forests are not just a bunch of trees, and monkeys and apes are not just important because they are cute and intelligent social mammals.

Aside from their innate right to live freely in their natural habitats, Forests are essential in slowing climate change, since trees absorb carbon dioxide and store carbon.primates also perform a service to the planet. Like elephants, parrots and other fruit-eating animals, they are keystone species in their habitats, principally because they disperse the seeds of the next generation of trees in their droppings. The trees we fell today for our garden furniture and hardwood paneling were "planted" by animals many centuries ago. To maintain tropical forests over the long-term, the "gardeners of the forest" must be protected.

Yet this is not just about saving charismatic mega-vertebrates. About 50 percent of all known species live in tropical forests, or more correctly, play a role in the ecology of tropical forests. These forests play a pivotal role in sequestering and storing carbon, but losing them means more than an absence in their role as climate regulators. Forest destruction and degradation account for nearly a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions (much more than the transport sector). Cutting down forests is a double loss because the process adds to the very problems we need forests to help solve. Forests store carbon not just in the wood of the trees, but also in the soil—especially in tropical forests growing on peat swamps, which release centuries-worth of stored carbon when they dry out.

There is more carbon in the atmosphere and fewer trees to absorb it, due to logging.In December, world leaders will meet in Bali, Indonesia for the 13th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Among the items to be discussed are the new regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which will come into effect after the first period of the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012. Unfortunately, the Kyoto Protocol and European Emissions Trading Scheme do not recognize carbon credits—a method of privatizing the societal cost of carbon dioxide pollution by allowing countries or individual companies not meeting emission targets to buy "credit" from independent bodies—for avoided deforestation, and they make it very difficult for afforestation (establishing a forest on land that is not a forest, or has not been one for a long time) or reforestion (reestablishing a forest shortly after its removal) schemes in developing countries.

Oil palms are grown for their fruit, which is used in the production of vegetable oil.As a result, economic pressures to exploit forests are many times greater than efforts to conserve them, and illegal, unsustainable logging and the conversion of tropical forests to agriculture continue to threaten these biodiverse habitats' role in maintaining climate stability. Ironically, one of the measures being touted as a means of reducing carbon emissions—using bio-fuels instead of fossil fuels—is exacerbating the destruction of forests by making it more profitable to convert them to growing oil palms or other bio-fuel crops. Action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could help achieve the Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty and improve peoples' lives in developing countries, since the poorest 1.2 billion of the world's population depend directly on forests for their livelihood.

The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (an October 2006 report for the British government by economist Nicholas Stern, investigating the effect of climate change and global warming on the world economy) concludes that "[c]urbing deforestation is a highly cost-effective way to reduce emissions." It estimates that investing a few billions of dollars per year in protecting forests would be the cheapest way of significantly reducing global carbon emissions. In Malaysia, oil palms grow where a rainforest recently stood.This is not, however, an option to replace the development of low carbon technology and the curbing of other emissions. It is instead an immediate action that could buy some time for new technologies to come into play.

In short, we must do all we can to lessen our personal carbon footprints, and we must all call on our government to create a regulatory framework that stimulates the voluntary carbon markets. Carbon trading should meet strict standards. This would attract immediate investment in managing forests for the benefit of local communities, biodiversity conservation and the planet. To find out more, please visit