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Submitted by: Doug Cress

By the year 2030, experts predict that human development will have impacted over 90 per cent of great ape habitat in Equatorial Africa, and that less than one per cent of the orangutan’s undisturbed rainforest homes in Southeast Asia will remain.

That means the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan, whose population is already fragmented across northern Sumatra, will become even more isolated. Cross River gorillas in Cameroon and Nigeria will struggle to survive in the 11 pockets of forest they currently inhabit, mountain gorillas might lose the ability to roam freely across parts of the Albertine Rift, and the 24 chimpanzees that cling to the tiny Gishwati Forest in Rwanda – nicknamed the “Forest of Hope” – might cease to exist at all.

But finding a way to enhance the value of those forests and identify vital corridors that might expand the great apes’ range is at the heart of a new project undertaken by two United Nations’ initiatives – the UN-REDD Programme and the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP). The UN-REDD – GRASP collaboration will develop a series of maps that overlay carbon data and great ape habitat and population data, to highlight the potential benefits of REDD+ and help determine the most vital conservation areas.

The UN-REDD-GRASP project will seek to demonstrate the value the UN-REDD Programme could add to the conservation of great apes – chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans – in terms of improved land-use planning, forest-ecosystem restoration and the connection of habitats through natural corridors that include both protected areas and non-protected areas. This connectivity is crucial to the long-term survival of great apes, which naturally switch social groups or travel vast distances to promote genetic diversity and establish new populations.

Increased knowledge and understanding of the benefits of the UN-REDD Programme for great ape conservation will also help decision-makers to prioritize geographic areas for REDD+ efforts.

The maps will draw upon publically available pantropical carbon data administered by the UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Centre, and will be made available in both published format and on-line through the Ape Populations Environments Surveys portal database, a visualization tool that can help link the carbon and great ape layers with other context data. The UN-REDD–GRASP project will be launched in late 2014.

The UN-REDD Programme and GRASP had been seeking meaningful projects on which to collaborate, particularly as the natural overlap between forests and great apes already existed. The fact that the UN-REDD Programme currently works in a number of nations that host great apes – including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Tanzania, Indonesia and Nigeria, among others – made the partnership that much easier.

GRASP is a unique alliance of 95 nations, conservation organizations, research institutions and UN agencies that was established in 2001 and tasked with ensuring the long-term survival of great apes and their habitat. Among GRASP’s key priorities is the protection and expansion of great ape rangeland, and the UN-REDD Programme carbon data could be a valuable tool in speeding support to priority areas.

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Doug Cress is the programme coordinator of the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP). He previously served as the executive director of the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA), the vice-president of the Orangutan Conservancy, and the executive director of the Great Ape Project (GAP), and spent 20 years as an award-winning reporter for The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Daily News, Time and the Atlanta Constitution.