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December 1996
Know Your Great Apes


The great apes belong, with humans, to the family, hominidae. There are 11 living families of apes in the 170 species of primates. All primates share some fundamental characteristics: among these are that their first toe bears a nail, while the other digits either have a nail or claws and the prominence of the power of smell in their brain is diminished in favor of the sense of sight. Unlike humans and a few other primates, most live in trees in the tropics.

The name means "forest person" in Malay. Listed as an endangered, they once ranged from southern China to southest Asia. There are now, according to a 1993 survey, between 20,000 and 27,000 orangutans left in the wild - in Indonesian Borneo, Malaysian Borneo, and northern Sumatra. The only big ape found in Asia, orangutans tend to live a solitary lifestyle unlike other species of monkey or apes. Males are usually intolerant of each other and act aggressively when they meet. The male orangutan can reach five feet standing tall, and weigh up to 220 pounds. His voice is his greatest asset, however, being audible up to a couple of miles away. Orangutans walk on their fists (rather than their knuckles like chimps and gorillas). A wild born pair in the Philadelphia Zoo lived there for over 50 years.

For more information, contact: The Orangutan Foundation, 7 Kent Terrace, London, NW1 4RP, England. Or you can call: 1-800-ORANGUTAN or e-mail:

A species of chimpanzee, the bonobo is the least known of the great apes because it lives only in a remote region of Zaire and has only recently been discovered. Physiologically similar to the chimpanzee, the bonobo is able, however, to stand more erect and walk on two legs more frequently. Some anthropologists consider the bonobo to be the best living prototype for the common ancestor of humans and African apes. Molecular genetic analyses have shown that the chimpanzee genus, Pan, is most closely related to humans and shares approximately 99% genetic identity. Bonobos are highly social. Like humans, they have sex when the female is not in estrus. They are generally peaceful animals, something attributed to the maintenance of their highly complex social repertoire. Listed as endangered, bonobos are highly vulnerable to deforestation, poaching, and refugees fleeing war.

There are three varieties of gorilla - the eastern and western lowland, and mountain gorillas. Of the last there are only 650 left in the wild, and their numbers are declining daily as poaching and deforestation take away their remaining habitat in wartorn Zaire. All told there are around 30,000 gorillas left in the wild, although that number may be grossly overestimated. Males can weigh over 400 pounds. In spite of their size, however, gorillas are nearly always herbivorous and gentle creatures, with strong family units. Apart from Zaire, gorillas are found in Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and Cameroon.

For more information, contact: The Gorilla Foundation, Box 620-640, Woodside, CA 94062. Tel.: 415-851-8505. E-mail:

There are three chimp subspecies - the western, central, and eastern African - and they number in total around 100,000 in the wild (down from millions just 50 years ago). The male can grow up to four feet, the female three and a half feet, in height, and they weigh between 150 and 190 pounds. Chimpanzees have been known to use tools such as rocks to crack nuts and sticks which they push into termite mounds and then lick. Mothers have a lifelong bond with their children, and chimps have been known to use the forest medicinal plants to treat themselves when they are injured. Highly social, chimpanzees have a wide variety of facial expressions, kisses, pats, vocalizations, and body signs to communicate.

Apes in Zoos and Laboratories
As of December 31, 1995, there were 329 gorillas, 242 chimpanzees, 232 orangutans, and 56 bonobos in the 164 zoos accredited to the American Zoological Association. The AZA does not register roadside zoos or entertainment parks. While sources are unclear, it seems that there are a minimum of 50,000 primates in U.S. laboratories.


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