In ten years’ time our next of kin, the great apes, will have
disappeared from the wild. This is a crisis situation and one that
requires not just steps but a giant leap across the "species barrier",
behind which humans oppress billions of animals each day with impunity:
chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans must be given the legal and
moral status of "non-human individuals" in order to protect
their basic rights.
"great apes" covers humans (Homo sapiens), chimpanzees (Pan
troglodytes), bonobos (Pan paniscus), gorillas (Gorilla
gorilla) and orang-utans (Pongo pigmaeus). We each share a
common ancestor, many of whose chromosomes have survived millions of years
with no apparent change. Whether we like it or not, humans are also great
apes. And yet we are destroying the same creatures with whom we share 97%
to 99% of our genetic signature, as though the remaining tiny percentage
gave us the right to deliberately and with impunity commit what may become
one of the worst crimes of the twenty-first century. A crime against a
people’s very identity. A crime against the living heritage of our
planet. A crime against knowledge of our origins. Greater understanding of
this history could give greater meaning to our ultimate goal, which is
surely not total domination of all living things. We must change our ways.
We can still choose whether or not we wish to seal the tragic fate of our
nearest cousins. We can still ensure that the twenty-first century does
not go down in history as the century when human great apes exterminated
non-human great apes.
A moral disaster
Non-human great apes are classified as endangered species.
Many individuals and organisations across the world are working to save, protect
and return to the wild chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas in Africa, orang-utans
in Indonesia. Despite this, a history of bloodshed continues to spread sadness
among families of great apes. Over and over again, members of these families
find themselves caught up in the infernal cycle that Man has sustained for
centuries and recreates day after day across the globe. This cycle transforms
living beings, animals that were born free, into living or dead objects for Man
to exploit at will, often until the ultimate and irreversible stage of
extinction. This is the case of great apes. They are objects for consumption,
sold as bushmeat on markets throughout Africa. They are objects for
entertainment, domesticated, exhibited, held captive for life in circuses and
zoos. They are objects for self-indulgence, orphans sold as pets who, if they
survive, may live out their life in chains. They are objects for experimentation,
most often ending their days in isolation in laboratory cages. And to add to
this we exterminate them by destroying their habitat. Quite clearly non-human
great apes are the living (for the moment) symbol of the distress of the entire
animal world. May our commitment to saving them make them the living symbol of
all animals’ liberation.
Man, the most fearsome predator of all
the great apes slowly die is to observe what our future will be on a
planet that is becoming inhospitable as it slowly chokes." (Biruté
Galdikas, Reflections of Eden). The bodies of entire families of
great apes lie scattered across the land of Africa, killed, mutilated and
dismembered by Man’s inauspicious hand. Africa, the mythical continent
where millions of years ago the human great ape appeared alongside its
non-human brothers. For humans are also great apes. Why does Man threaten
his nearest relation? Does he feel threatened himself? Or does he fear for
his arbitrary place at the centre of the natural world? As increasingly
precise knowledge of great apes has emerged since the 1960s, the barrier
between Man and animal, between culture and nature, becomes less and less
justifiable. We believed the humanisation process would end when Man had
severed all links with nature to become the only "cultured being",
and animals "natural beings". It is this "us and them"
attitude that underlies the human predator’s overriding and destructive
desire for supremacy over the animal realm.
Leakey’s three angels
The work of Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey and Biruté Galdikas,
the "three angels", shook the scientific community. These women, sent
into the field in the 1960s and 70s by paleo-anthropologist Louis Leakey, built
their science not on domination but on respect. Thankfully, other scientists
have since followed their lead. Louis Leakey, who travelled throughout Africa in
search of the "missing link", believed that studying the great apes in
their natural environment would give a more accurate idea of how Man’s
ancestors lived. He invited Jane Goodall to study chimpanzees in the Gombe river
reserve. In just one year, she won the trust of chimpanzees in the wild. She
rewrote scientific rules by identifying each individual with a name instead of
the usual number. Jane was thus able to more closely appreciate the individual
personality of the different chimpanzees with whom she built up a relationship,
and trace their background. Her work shed important new light on certain
convictions about humanity. Man’s distinctive characteristics were re-examined.
Not only did chimpanzees build and use tools, the mothers taught their young how
to use them too. Quite clearly, the chimpanzees had a culture which they passed
down through the generations. The difference between "us" and "them"
was getting smaller. Diane Fossey, who paid with her life to save the mountain
gorillas of Virunga in Africa, and Biruté Galdikas who continues to fight to
save the orang-utans of Indonesia, have significantly enriched our knowledge of
great apes, and in doing so inspired greater love and respect for them.
A disconcerting truth
Numerous studies of our nearest relations, including work by
leading primatologist Franz de Waal, have revealed that technique, culture,
tradition, teaching, planning, cooperation, morality, altruism and
reconciliation rituals are all part of the non-human great apes’ social
structure. They have self-awareness, recognize themselves in a mirror, can
anticipate the future, assimilate elaborate language structures, joke and even
tell lies! The "us and them divide" is about to be crossed, but
opposition will be proportional to the importance of the moral progress this
will represent in Man’s relation to Animal. Specism is profoundly anchored in
human mentalities, and powerful interests are at stake. We need the dedication
and determination of all those who are able to go beyond prejudice and their own
interests so that chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans are no longer
treated like instruments to serve Man’s immorality, but as individuals with
their own destiny. Their future is in our hands.
Terrified orphans in a devastated world
Of all the great apes, the orang-utans are the most at risk as
they live only in the primary forests of Borneo and Sumatra. Over 80% of this
natural habitat has been destroyed. Logging companies replace natural vegetation
with marketable trees such as palm and rubber, while peasants start fires so
they can then grow crops on the land. Both destroy the orang-utan’s natural
habitat and primary resources. Hungry, thirsty and dehydrated, they venture near
human homes where peasants beat them to death. Terrified baby orang-utans are
captured and sold. Corruption, mass exploitation of the forests and poaching
made easy by the "veins" cut into the heart of the forests have
decimated the orang-utan population. No more than 20,000 still survive. In
Indonesia, in the Amazon, in Africa the forest rings to the terrifying sound of
chainsaws, bulldozers, dynamite and arms. Our ape-brothers’ blood is spilled
among the sap of millennial trees from Africa or Asia that will finish in
European ports (in particular Nantes) to be made into doors, windows, furniture
and toilet paper, leaving behind hundreds of dead plant and animal species. We
are directly responsible for the massacred great apes and their families, and
for the fate of their orphaned young who are captured and sold as exotic meat or
zoo attractions. Non-human ape young who are snatched from their mother and who
witness her savage death are left traumatized. Like human babies they are
fragile and need the loving care of a mother throughout their early years.
Education also plays an essential role in acquiring adult behaviour. Few of
these orphaned apes survive premature separation, ill-treatment or malnutrition.
Those that do live forever in a state of shock with the flames, blood and
terrifying shadow of Man forever engraved on their memory.
We all belong to Washoe’s family tree
Non-human great apes are conscious of their identity. "They
think therefore they are" from the same family as humans. One of the most
irrefutable proofs is that they can communicate with humans using a human
language. Allen and Beatrix Gardner successfully taught sign language to a young
chimpanzee they named Washoe. They communicate with Washoe, who has learned 350
different signs which she can structure into simple sentences. When shown her
reflection in a mirror and asked "who’s this?"; Washoe replies
"me, Washoe." Later, after Washoe went to live with Roger and Deborah
Fouts, she adopted a baby chimpanzee to whom she taught the signs she herself
had learned. Gorillas can also learn sign language. Francine Petterson uses
signs to communicate with Koko, a lowland gorilla. Koko understands 500
different signs. When shown a mirror, Koko makes faces or examines her teeth.
When asked "who’s a clever gorilla?" she replies "me".
When told "Koko is stupid" she answers, "no, gorilla."
Chantek, an orang-utan, has also learned sign language with Lyn Miles. When he
is shown a photo of a gorilla pointing to its nose, he does the same. Chantek
imitates the gorilla. He is aware of his own body and can transfer this image
from one context to another.
A lesson to be learned from "Old Man"
Non-human great apes can learn different elements of the human
communication system. They understand many different signs, symbols and spoken
English words. Not only can they reproduce sentences, they are capable of
inventing their own. Quite clearly they have a gift for language and
communication and are able to formulate their thoughts, emotions, feelings and
needs, and refer to past and future events. Over a number of years, Jane Goodall
and Franz de Waal observed chimpanzees in the semi-wild, noting examples of
cooperation, planning and deliberate misleading behaviour. This clearly shows
that chimpanzees are both aware of themselves and understand that other
chimpanzees are aware too. They develop strong social and family ties which they
observe all their life. They share, help each other, soothe conflict and show
kindness towards other species. Jane Goodall tells the story of "Old
Man", a chimpanzee who had been mistreated yet who saved a human friend
from an attack by female chimpanzees who believed their young to be in danger.
Quite clearly, the same sap flows through the five branches of the great ape
The ancestral tree is in danger
• Humans: as their population continues to grow, humans
invade non-human territory and destroy natural sanctuaries such as forests and
seas. • Chimpanzees: in danger of extinction. They live chiefly in rainforests,
although some have successfully adapted to the savannah and wooded areas.
Chimpanzees may die out in the wild within ten years. Because the chimpanzee
shares 99% of its genes with humans, it is laboratories’ preferred
"living test-tube". • Bonobos: in danger of extinction. Having once
occupied vast expanses of equatorial Africa, bonobos are now found only in the
rain and swamp forests of Congo (formerly Zaire). Bonobos are pygmy chimpanzees.
According to Jared Diamond, physiologist at Los Angeles university, the third
chimpanzee is Man • Gorillas: in danger of extinction. The mountain gorilla,
of which just 600 remain, survives on the volcanic slopes of Virunga while
lowland gorillas, of which just 30,000 remain, live in Congo (Zaire), Cameroon,
Gabon, Congo and Angola. • Orang-utans: in danger of extinction. Orang-utans
will have disappeared from the wild in Sumatra by 2005 and in Borneo by 2010.
Prior to 1998, these five species were grouped together in a single "super-family",
Hominoidea, which comprised the Hominidea family of humans, and
the Pongidea family of the other four great apes. Because this separation
has no genetic justification, these five species have now been classified in the
same family, Hominidea. Will the "five families’ tree", a
tree that is millions of years old and whose roots go back to the deepest
mysteries of the Earth, will this "ancestral tree" like other
millennial trees be savagely cut down? Of these five families, only one is
breaking the living chain and changing biodiversity, an essential evolutionary
factor. Will we have the courage to become citizens of the Earth, co-guardians
of life on our "blue planet"?
Bridging the divide
past, ethics have made the mistake of considering only Man’s behaviour
towards Man, when in reality we need to consider how Man behaves towards
the world and towards the different forms of life he encounters," (A.
Schweitzer, Anthropology, 1947). In the sixteenth century,
Copernicus and Galileo shook western thinking to its roots. The Earth,
until then the centre of the universe and existing only to satisfy Man’s
needs, suddenly rotated around another, larger centre, the Sun. Four
thousand years of geocentric beliefs fell apart. And yet the "sister
belief" of anthropocentrism is still very much alive in the
twenty-first century. Man still believes he is the all-powerful centre of
creation and that all other creatures are there to serve him. To recognise
non-human great apes as individuals, equal to humans, could have the same
bombshell effect as heliocentrism, or as Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Such a bombshell would have the salutary effect
of dismantling "homocentrism", the cause of specism, and replacing it
with a wider centre embracing all forms of life. Non-human great apes are the
most obvious candidates for this new status as individuals with the same
fundamental rights as humans. Firstly, because observation has shown they have
self-awareness, and this is what defines a individual as opposed to a thing.
Secondly, because they are in a crisis situation. They could be the ultimate
step towards granting the status of "animal individual" to both wild
and domestic animals. Animals have rights, defined in terms of what humans can
or cannot do. But their intrinsic value is still not recognised and therefore
they are still not recognised in the eyes of the law. Defending the rights of
non-human great apes will provide the necessary impetus to break through the
species barrier and instate equality among all animals.
The Declaration of the Rights of Great Apes
This is the principal aim of the Great Ape Project, founded by
the philosopher Peter Singer (author of Animal Liberation) and the
journalist Paola Cavalieri. The Project seeks to extend the ethical community
from which Man benefits to non-human great apes. The Declaration asks that the
community of equals, which already includes humans, be extended to chimpanzees,
bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans so that they might benefit from fundamental
rights such as the right to life, the protection of individual liberty and the
prohibition of torture. The Project aims to collect enough signatures across the
world so it can then request the creation of a United Nations Declaration of the
Rights of Great Apes. One Voice helps diffuse this Declaration in France via its
great apes campaign. In the longer term, One Voice will work with the Great Ape
Project to obtain legislation that will guarantee these three fundamental rights
for non-human great apes, with no return obligation, on a par with children’s
rights. Human guardians could be named who would defend great apes’ rights in
court whenever these were threatened or violated by an act or decision. We must
also continue to work for the creation of the first independent territories
under the aegis of an international group, where non-human apes can live freely.
To kill a great ape would be murder; to experiment on a great ape would be
torture. Great apes that are held captive by zoos, circuses, laboratories or
private individuals must be freed and taken to sanctuaries where they will
either spend the rest of their life in freedom, or the time needed before they
can return to their natural environment. Man learned to walk upright alongside
non-human great apes. Man can become morally upright by offering great apes his
help, by using words and deeds to forge equality instead of domination. We have
destroyed their world. It is up to us to rebuild it. These sanctuaries would be
the foundations on which we must build. The Declaration of the Rights of Great
Apes is the cement. Sign it, encourage others to sign it, and become an equal
with other individuals, the non-human great apes.
Translation: Sandra Petch