Saving apes: Greenville Zoo funds primate conservation in Africa

The eastern lowland gorilla, found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is now critically endangered, with only 4,000 individuals surviving. Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images.

The future looks bleak for mankind’s closest biological relatives.

A study published in the journal Science Advances warns that great apes, monkeys, and other nonhuman primates will begin to vanish from the face of the Earth in 25 to 50 years if the effects of habitat loss, hunting, and manmade climate change aren’t mitigated. Now a nonprofit — partially funded by the Greenville Zoo — is working to stop the devastating effects of these practices before it’s too late. 

The Pan African Sanctuary Alliance is composed of more than 20 wildlife centers and sanctuaries across Africa that care for primates that have been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade or orphaned by the illegal hunting of endangered species. It recently received a $944 grant from the Greenville Zoo to educate 200 children in the Democratic Republic of Congo about primate conservation.

“This covers the cost of printing a children’s book that has conservation messaging, giving students school supplies so they can participate in art projects, printing certificates which the students receive after completing the program, and printing evaluation forms so we can assess the impact of the program,” said Gregg Tully, executive director of PASA. “This will inspire children to protect wildlife rather than exploiting it.”

The Greenville Journal recently caught up with Tully by phone to talk about some of the threats facing primate populations in Africa and how his organization is helping to address them.

The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How does PASA help with primate conservation? 

There are a lot of small-to-medium-sized nonprofits throughout Africa that are working to rescue and rehabilitate primates. But a lot of them are struggling in isolation. PASA fills that gap by connecting these organizations to one another. We host a conference every year for our members so that they can meet and discuss the challenges they’re facing. We also have a wide range of programs that help them build their capacity.

Which threats do you consider most dangerous to African primates?

I believe widespread hunting is now the biggest threat. It started out as sustainable hunting a couple of decades ago. But as humans populations have grown and habitats have decreased, it’s now far from sustainable. It’s a big business now. In many cases, it’s not people hunting to feed their families. They instead hunt animals and sell them to meat markets. This industry is widespread throughout much of Africa. But sadly, not enough people know about it in America. Habitat loss is also still a huge issue. That includes mining projects, logging projects, and also people who are illegally converting protected forests into farmland. There is also the illegal wildlife trade. Someone can smuggle a great ape out of Africa and send them to the Middle East where they’re added to someone’s private animal collection or China where they often end up in zoos with no standards or accreditation. They can go for more than $10,000.

How are PASA members addressing these threats?

Our members play a critical role in law enforcement. We’ve found in countries that don’t have wildlife sanctuaries that police don’t want to arrest someone who is smuggling a baby chimpanzee. They don’t know what to do with the chimpanzee. It’s a lot easier for them to take a bribe and look the other way. Our sanctuaries make it possible for law enforcement officials to arrest smugglers, because they are capable of providing long-term care for these primates. They also help through the education and community development work they do. It’s really crucial for changing people’s attitudes and behaviors regarding hunting and eating bushmeat. Our members generally target communities that are located in or near primate habitat. It’s not something that produces immediate results, but it can produce a widespread impact over time by teaching kids to be more compassionate to animals.

How many primates have been rescued by PASA wildlife centers?

PASA member organizations rescued 174 primates last year. Most of the primates were victims of the illegal wildlife trade or orphans of the bushmeat trade.

Are primates returned to the wild upon rehabilitation? 

We would love to release as many primates as possible into the wild. It’s definitely a priority. But most of them will spend the rest of their lives at the sanctuaries. We’re not going to release them into an area where there’s a high risk of them being hunted. In some countries, nobody has been able to find habitat that’s safe for release and not already at capacity with primates of the same species.

What are some simple — but perhaps overlooked — ways in which everyday people can help with primate conservation? 

There are countless ways that people all around the world — including those in Greenville — can help to protect primates from extinction. One of them is by donating to charities that are working to protect primates. It also helps to raise awareness, so sharing posts on Facebook and other social media platforms is really helpful. Social media makes it easier than ever before to inform friends and family of these issues. PASA also has an online petition on our website about the bushmeat crisis that people can sign. That’s an easy way to make an impact. We also encourage people to visit zoos, because they usually donate a portion of the admission fees to wildlife organizations.

Are you hopeful for the future of our planet’s primates?

I’m cautiously hopeful. There’s been a lot of progress with habitat protection. But the scale of the bushmeat crisis and wildlife trade is really scary. It’s going to take a lot of effort from all of us to protect primates from extinction.

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