GRASP & IUCN Great Apes Status Report 2018: Summary

Categories: Journal no. 58, Gorilla Journal, Gorilla Numbers, Censuses, Threats, Mountain Gorilla, Grauer's Gorilla, Cross River Gorilla, Western Lowland Gorilla

Geographic distribution of African great ape taxa and sites (IUCN SSC A.P.E.S. database, 2017; © Max Planck Institute for evolutionary Anthropology)

Great ape populations in Africa and Asia are severely threatened by the combined impacts of habitat loss, poaching, illegal trade, and disease. Since great apes have slow rates of reproduction, populations are unable to cope with significant and continued losses of individuals. Despite formal legal protection, law enforcement remains a major challenge in many countries and poaching, especially for the illegal domestic trade in bushmeat, is the most significant threat to the survival of most great apes. This trade is mainly domestic, though some international trade, primarily between neighbouring countries, does occur. The great apes (bonobos, chimpanzees, eastern and western gorillas, Bornean, Sumatran and Tapanuli orangutans) face significant conservation threats and are listed as either Endangered or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN 2018) and on Appendix I of CITES (CITES 2017).

In response to growing conservation concerns, the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) and the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group produced a report for the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) Secretariat on the status of great ape taxa and the relative impact of illegal trade and other pressures on their status. This report assessed distribution and abundance trends and evaluated primary threats to their survival, in order to highlight conservation challenges and provide recommendations for future practice (GRASP & IUCN 2018).

Species Trends

The report found that all 14 great ape subspecies, with the single exception of the mountain gorilla, are declining. Ten subspecies are now listed as Critically Endangered. Current rates of decline stand at up to 7 % per year, with more than half of great ape subspecies declining at over 4 % per year. The increase in mountain gorilla populations, at an annual rate of 3.7 %, represents a significant conservation success enabled by effective protected areas, intensive law enforcement and benefits to the communities. However, all other great ape taxa are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of human activities. Much remaining habitat is under threat due to expanding industry and related infrastructure development, and up to 80 % of the range of many taxa lies outside protected areas. The most important direct threats to great apes are habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation, bushmeat poaching and, for some taxa, infectious disease. The relative importance of these threats varies by taxon and location (for more information see full report). A thorough understanding of local circumstances is required to address threats to great apes, which cannot be considered in isolation. However, some challenges are common across great ape range states.

Habitat Loss

Great apes are dependent on forest ecosystems which are increasingly threatened by industrial agriculture, resource extraction and infrastructure development. There exists a significant challenge in reconciling conservation priorities with urgently needed economic development. Many great ape range states are rich in natural resources and expanding extractives sectors are one of the key drivers of population declines. Alongside the direct impact of habitat loss caused by mines, logging concessions, roads, transmission lines and dams; new development attracts huge numbers of people in search of new opportunities. This often leads to uncontrolled additional development, including artisanal mining and farming. While these industries can help lift people out of poverty, operations must be sensitive to the biodiversity values and ecosystem services on which local communities and wildlife heavily rely. Inclusive integrated land-use planning processes and implementation of biodiversity-friendly business practices are required if such economic activities are to be accommodated sustainably in great ape habitats.

A number of initiatives seek to minimize the negative impacts of industrial activities on biodiversity through certification schemes, best practice mitigation measures and performance standards. These initiatives and best practices will be central to future work to minimise impact of growing industries on great ape populations, for example, as oil palm development becomes a major threat to African great apes, as it has been for Asian great apes. The Status Report recommended that CITES parties legally oblige all private actors in the energy, extractives and agricultural sectors to comply with national and international best practices and enforce clear penalties for non-compliance.

However, the most sensitive ecosystems and biologically-rich great ape habitats should be legally protected, ideally through designation as off-limits to habitat modification. The report therefore recommended that CITES parties should review relevant national and regional level legislation, policies and sanctions to ensure adequate protection of great apes through improved legal frameworks for conservation. Economic viability is a central issue to conservation success. Tourism with great apes can be a means of generating revenue to fund conservation efforts and to protect great apes, and the success of mountain gorilla tourism has shown that conservation-based great ape tourism has considerable potential. However, it is unclear whether this success will be replicable within other contexts. Tourism comes with significant risks and if it is not based on sound, socially-conscious conservation principles, economic objectives are likely to take precedence, with detrimental consequences for great apes. In order to enable implementation of its recommendations, the report appealed to private and public donors for increased financial support.

Bushmeat Poaching and Trade

Poaching is a key threat to all great ape taxa. Many wildlife species are commonly eaten in West and Central Africa, and a huge network for bushmeat trade has developed, where large numbers of animals are hunted in remote forest areas and brought to industrial camps, towns and cities for profit. Though great apes are not commonly a primary focus of bushmeat hunting, populations in West and Central Africa are highly threatened by the commercial bushmeat trade, particularly to supply workers in the growing extractives industries. Poaching of orangutans for food also occurs extensively in Borneo. Although funding has gone into projects promoting alternative sources of protein, the impact of these investments has rarely been meaningfully quantified. The Status Report therefore recommended development of further research into dietary alternatives to bushmeat and improvement of impact monitoring to accurately determine efficacy.

The volume of bushmeat that crosses international borders is difficult to estimate, as the majority of transborder trade in great ape meat is across neighbouring country boundaries where detection is weak. More research is required to determine how much great ape meat is involved in this trade, in order to quantify conservation impacts.

Great apes are highly symbolic in the global illegal wildlife trade, and trade in live great apes has been recognized as a threat to their survival since the 1980s. However, until recently, there has been a significant lack of verified quantitative and qualitative data on the trade in great apes and bushmeat, including the circumstances surrounding confiscations. This has made it hard to define long-term strategies to combat this high-profile issue. To address this gap, GRASP launched the Apes Seizure Database in 2016 (, in collaboration with the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. This database will enable quantification and tracking of the extent of the illegal great ape trade for the first time and provide analytics for future CITES reports.

Further development of its capacities will work hand-in-hand with the application of new advances in genetic recognition technology, which could improve the identification of bushmeat and the origin of live animals to facilitate potential repatriation. The Status Report recommended that CITES parties and great ape conservation partners, including national law enforcement agencies and wildlife departments, NGOs and researchers, should strive to utilise and contribute to the GRASP Apes Seizure Database in order to facilitate effective analysis of illegal trade and inform future law enforcement efforts.

Law Enforcement

Currently, law enforcement is insufficient to halt illegal trafficking of live great apes or their body parts. Arrests and convictions for holding or selling great apes or bushmeat rarely occur. Only 27 arrests for great ape trade were made between 2005 and 2011, one quarter of which were never prosecuted. At least 440 formal confiscations of orangutans by law enforcement agencies between 1993 and 2016 resulted in only 7 successful convictions. Understanding the whole chain of actors involved in the bushmeat trade is necessary to address the threat that it poses. E-commerce has given suppliers unprecedented access to new markets, and the development of social media outlets is responsible for an explosion of illegal trade in numerous species sold illicitly via the Internet.

Collaborative efforts to improve law enforcement are underway in several countries. Partnerships between EAGLE (Eco Activists for Governance and Law Enforcement) members and national governments have resulted in some success, but continued effort is needed. The Status Report therefore recommended that CITES parties increase law enforcement efforts including: corruption mitigation strategies, training of local practitioners and rangers, prosecution evidence gathering, the use of modern forensic methods, and training of customs agents. It urged member states to ratify and fully implement the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the UN Convention against Corruption, and to solicit the support of national and international NGOs to ensure appropriate judiciary process in wildlife law enforcement. It noted that legally binding transboundary agreements and collaborative judiciary proceedings are needed, with respect to evidence exchange, sentencing and extradition, to address illegal cross border trade in live apes, ape parts and bushmeat.


Despite significant effective conservation work at many sites within great ape range states, almost all great ape taxa continue to decline. The drivers of this trend will continue to increase in intensity and extent in the coming decades. Habitat degradation due to expanding agriculture, industry and infrastructure is closely linked with unsustainable large-scale hunting for bushmeat. Evidence also indicates that the illegal trade in live great apes is a secondary effect of habitat loss and poaching. Much remaining great ape habitat lies within areas with no formal protection, and encroachment of industry and poaching remains a problem within many protected areas. A holistic approach is required to tackle these challenges effectively, with coordination between actors involved in law enforcement and conservation at regional, national and international levels. Addressing any one threat alone will not be enough to achieve conservation goals. Great ape habitats continue to be degraded because national-scale spatial planning often does not take conservation into account and because law enforcement relating to illegal trade and the protection of natural areas remains weak. Further understanding of the drivers of illegal bushmeat trade and illegal live ape trade by criminal cartels is required. Improved reporting and data analysis through the development of the Apes Seizure Database will begin to build a reliable knowledge base with which to address this issue.

To be successful, conservation and law enforcement efforts require high-level political commitment, sustained financial support, cross-sectorial collaboration and inclusion of all stakeholders. Integrated partnerships which can engage with industry to promote best practice methods, and engage with social issues to address the root causes of bushmeat poaching, are urgently needed to halt current population declines and prevent the irreversible loss of all great apes.

George Lee Harris and Johannes Refisch


GRASP & IUCN (2018): Report to the CITES Standing Committee on the Status of Great Apes. United Nations Environment Programme Great Apes Survival Partnership, Nairobi, and International Union for Conservation of Nature, Gland

This report, links and more information for download here