It may sound like small change to some, but conservationists are jubilant over a new multimillion-dollar federal effort to protect great apes in the wild. After hearing how logging and illegal hunting are pushing several species to the brink of extinction, the Senate last week unanimously passed the Great Ape Conservation Act. The measure, already approved by the House and a sure bet for President Clinton to sign, authorizes the government to spend up to $5 million a year over the next 5 years on projects to protect wild chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, gibbons, and bonobos.
Ape programs may not get any cash this year, however, as Congress has already finished work on the 2001 spending bill that covers the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which will administer the fund, says Christine Wolf of the Fund for Animals in Silver Spring, Maryland. And even though the bill allows the government to spend up to $5 million per year on apes, supporters will have to lobby hard to convince Congress to appropriate the full amount in the future. Similar funds for elephant, rhino, and tiger protection routinely get no more than $1 million a year. "This kind of support is an absolutely crucial first step, but it needs to be followed up with funding," says ecologist Amy Vedder of the Wildlife Conservation Society, based at the Bronx Zoo.
But chimpanzee expert William McGrew of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, isn't disappointed. Even $1 million, he says, could make a big difference to ape conservation efforts--including basic population surveys--in African and Southeast Asian countries. Primatologist Richard Wrangham agrees. He says relatively small grants can go a long way to support initial surveys where apes have been sighted but never studied.