How endangered great apes provide a crucial window into human evolution — and why we should help preserve these species

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Kingo, a wild silverback gorilla. Credit: Wildlife Conservation Society
Kingo, a wild silverback gorilla. Credit: Wildlife Conservation Society

When I was a kid, every trip to the zoo featured a visit to the orangutan habitat. I was fascinated by the animals’ long fingers, how they took shelter when it started to rain, the affection they showed for their children, and the way they stretched after sitting too long in one position. Sometimes watching them felt like watching any other animal at the zoo, but sometimes it felt like watching people who happen to be visiting a nearby park. I swear I knew what they were thinking and feeling.

As an adult anthropologist, the sense of kinship I felt as a child has been brought into focus. Apes are our closest surviving relatives.

There was a time not so long ago when planet Earth was filled with a variety of our close relations, from Homo erectus, which looked quite a lot like modern humans, to Paranthropus boisei, which looked much less so. Each one carried a legacy: vital genetic, behavioral, biological, and geographic information about our shared origins. They were all strands in the interconnected web of humanity.

Today Homo sapiens are the only members of the Homo genus left, but we don’t stand entirely alone. If we zoom out a little to look at our family Hominidae, four genera of great apes remain: us, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans.

Looking at the numbers, there are approximately 7.67 billion people on the Earth today. In contrast, according to the World Wildlife Fund, the wild chimpanzee population is under 300,000, wild orangutans are fewer than 120,000, and although gorillas are notoriously hard to count, it is estimated there are some 100,000–200,000. Every great ape is endangered—except us.

Except for humans, every great ape is endangered—many at great risk of going extinct. There are fewer than 300,000 chimpanzees living in the wild. Credit: USAID Africa Bureau/Wikimedia Commons

The tragedy of those numbers is apparent to anyone who cares about conservation. We lose species to extinction every day, driven by economically motivated habitat destruction or unfettered consumerism. Wherever humans go, biodiversity often suffers, and we are everywhere.

Great apes are special because they are the closest remaining threads on that web of humanity, and we can never recover the information they have to share about our origins once they are lost. Apes are uniquely impactful to the field of anthropology, where we researchers look to the past to understand our present. If the desire to preserve biodiversity isn’t enough to save the apes, then unlocking the human story should be a further impetus for their conservation.

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