Photography by  Nick Brandt

Photography by Nick Brandt

Our Closest Living Relatives

Great apes all belong to the family Hominidae, which has seven species. Six of the Hominidae species are great apes, each endangered. The only animal in the Homonidae family that isn't an endangered species is humans.  The eastern and western gorilla and the Bornean orangutan and Sumatran orangutan are classed as critically endangered, a classification that is just one rung above extinction.. Chimpanzees and bonobos are deemed endangered.


1. Bornean Orangutan and Sumatran Orangutan (critically endangered)

Orangutans share 96.4% of our DNA, and are one of our closest relatives. They are the largest arboreal (tree-living) mammal on earth. The name ‘orangutan’ derives from the Indonesian/ Malay language, in which ‘orang hutan’ means ‘people of the forest’. The destruction and degradation of the tropical rain forest, particularly lowland forest, in Borneo and Sumatra is the main reason orangutans are threatened with extinction.This has been caused primarily by human activity (intense illegal logging, conversion of forest to palm oil plantations and timber estates, mining, clearing forest for settlements, and road construction) and also by large-scale fires facilitated by the El Nino weather phenomena. Additionally, the illegal animal trade has been a factor in the decline of wild orangutan populations. Finally, orangutans are occasionally hunted and eaten by some of the indigenous peoples of Borneo as well as migrant loggers and plantation workers who do not have dietary prohibitions against eating primate bushmeat. Approximately 2,000-3,000 Bornean orangtuans were killed every year in the past four decades alone, representing a loss of more than 50% of the original population in just 40 years. At this rate of killing, orangutan populations could be reduced to extinction in the next 50 years. Orangutans are a keystone species.  They are the largest arboreal (tree-dwelling) animals; their fruit-eating and seed-dispersing behavior is of ecological significance, helping to shape and preserve tropical rain forests. The diversity of foods they eat and their wide path through the forest means that they are crucial to the distribution of seeds which regenerate the forest. Indeed, some plants won’t even germinate until after they have been through the animals’ digestive system. The loss of the orangutans could have dramatic consequences for the ecosystem, with the subsequent depletion of thousands of plants. 

2.The Gorilla

Eastern Gorilla, Western Gorilla 

Gorillas display many human-like behaviors and emotions, such as laughter and sadness. They even make their own tools to help them survive in the forest. In fact, gorillas share 98.3% of their genetic code with humans, making them our closest cousins after chimpanzees and bonobos. The largest of the great apes, gorillas are stocky animals with broad chests and shoulders, large, human-like hands and small eyes set into hairless faces.  Like humans, gorillas reproduce slowly, giving birth to only one baby at a time and then raising that infant for several years before giving birth again. This slow reproduction rate makes gorillas especially vulnerable to any population declines. Habitat destruction is a problem across their central African range. Gorillas are also still killed for the bushmeat trade. That trade has helped spread the Ebola virus, which is deadly to both gorillas and humans. Efforts to protect gorillas are often hampered by weak law enforcement and civil unrest in many places where gorillas live. Gorillas are a keystone species in merely all of the locations and forests that they inhabit. The main reason is that they are the major fruit and plant consumers of the forests, so they control plant populations, stimulate regrowth, and are one of the most important seed distributors in their habitats Since their fecal matter will contain the seeds of the plants and fruits that they consume, they promote regrowth of plants in different locations as they move about the forest. In terms of climate change and the health of the global environment, we need to make sure these forests continue to exist. 

3. Chimpanzees 

“Our Cultured cousins” share an estimated 98% of their genes with humans. The main threats to the chimpanzee are habitat loss and hunting for bushmeat. The relative severity of these threats differs from region to region, but the two are linked. Degradation of forests through logging, mining, farming, and other forms of land development is contributing to the decline of primate species throughout tropical Africa. Remaining habitat patches are often small and unconnected, leaving chimpanzee populations isolated. Deforestation is most advanced in West Africa, where only remnant tracts of primary rainforest remain. The small populations of western, Nigerian, and eastern chimpanzees are primarily located in remnant forest reserves and national parks.In many such "protected areas", poaching for meat and live infants is common, as is unauthorized logging, mining and farming. Logging activities improve access to formerly remote forest areas, leading to increased hunting pressure.'Bushmeat' has always been a primary source of dietary protein in Central and West African countries. However in recent years, hunting for bushmeat, once a subsistence activity, has become heavily commercialized and much of the meat goes to urban residents who can afford to pay premium prices for it.The effect of the bushmeat trade on chimp populations has yet to be evaluated, but a study in Congo showed that off take was 5-7%, surpassing annual population increase. In addition, apes are often injured or killed in snares set for other animals. Infant chimpanzees are frequently taken alive and sold in the cities as pets.Many conservationists believe that the bushmeat trade is now the greatest threat to forest biodiversity in West and Central Africa. For chimpanzees, the prognosis is dire. Over the past century, wild numbers have declined by an astonishing 90 per cent. Today there may be as few as 172,000 individuals remaining, and fully 80 per cent of these are found in just a handful of African countries: Guinea, Cameroon, Gabon, here in fragile Republic of Congo and in the failed state of the Democratic Republic of Congo next door. Chimpanzees are critically endangered, and experts believe that unless drastic measures are taken, they could go extinct in the next 10 to 20 years.

Chimpanzees are a keystone species in the African jungle forests meaning their continued survival is crucial to the survival of the forest itself.. They are major fruit and nut consumers, but are especially crucial in seed dispersion in the forest through their consumption and excretion of seeds in the The Congo basin, it is home to huge rain forests that along with the Amazon serve as the lungs of our planet, we need to make sure these forests continue to exist.

4. Bonobo

We are more closely related to bonobos (and chimpanzees) than we are to any other animal on earth. We share 98.7% of our DNA with bonobos – this means that bonobos are more closely related to us than they are to gorillas. This leads to many similarities between bonobos and humans, but also some key differences.Bonobos live only in one country, the Democratic Republic of Congo.  They inhabit a remote, densely forested area, in the Congo Basin,most of which is accessible only by boat or bush plane. Called the “Green Abyss,” the bonobo habitat encompasses some of the most remote and least explored rainforest on earth. almost three times the size of France.  Bonobos are the most endangered great ape. No one is sure how many are left in the wild, but it could be as few as 5,000. The collective threats impacting wild bonobos include: poaching, civil unrest, habitat degradation, and a lack of information about the species.  Disease transmission also poses a silent threat; many gorillas and chimpanzees have succumbed to the ebola virus. 

Bushmeat hunting is the greatest threat to wild bonobo populations. Traditional taboos, which once protected bonobos in many areas, are breaking down in the face of economic desperation and human population pressure. In a region where more than 90% of residents can only afford to eat one meal each day, people are increasingly turning to wild sources for meat, both for sustenance and for profit in the commercial bushmeat trade. Due to years of war and insufficient infrastructure, the journey to marketplaces is long and arduous; smoked meat is one of the only commodities durable enough to withstand the trek.  Because bonobos only bear offspring every 4 to 5 years, the population is slow to regenerate.

Congo War

The Congo War, which ended in 2003, claimed more than 5 million lives. Extreme poverty, degraded infrastructure, and social impacts have led to increased pressures on natural resources and wildlife.

Agricultural Encroachment

Subsistence agriculture in the Congo region relies on slash and burn farming, which is the practice of cutting and burning trees and vegetation to clear plots for planting crops. This practice quickly depletes the soil of its natural nutrients and requires the clearing of new plots every few planting cycles, driving agricultural activity deeper into the rainforest and encroaching upon bonobo habitat. As the Congo is achieving greater political stability, large-scale industrial agriculture is also posing a larger threat. Industrial agriculture requires vast amounts of land and resources and could come into conflict with conservation aims.


Despite a government moratorium on industrial logging concessions in the Congo, logging—both legal and illegal—continues. Logging in this region contributes to the degradation and destruction of bonobo habitat. It also allows hunters to enter previously inaccessible areas of the forest via logging roads, perpetuating the bushmeat trade.

We’ve long known that bonobos are key to understanding ourselves, but a new study affirms they’re also a keystone species for the Congo Basin. By transporting seeds around the forest and improving their viability, bonobos foster diversity that’s crucial to the health of the ecosystem. That’s not hyperbole: The bonobo can be considered “a gardener of the Congo forests.”

Below is a short list of NGO's that support the protection and rehabilitation of Orangutans, Chimpanzees, Bonobos and Gorillas.


Orangutan Foundation International 

1. Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation of wild orangutans and their rainforest habitat. OFI also supports research on orangutans and forests, education initiatives, both local and international, and brings awareness concerning orangutans wherever it can. OFI is profoundly committed to the welfare of all orangutans, whether captive, ex-captive, or wild. Established by Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas and associates in 1986, OFI operates Camp Leakey, an orangutan research center, within Tanjung Puting National Park. OFI also runs the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine (OCCQ) facility in the Dayak village of Pasir Panjang near Pangkalan Bun, which is home to 330 displaced orangutans, and helps manage the Lamandau Wildlife Reserve, where rehabilitated wild born ex-captive orangutans were released into the wild. 


The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International 

Mountain gorillas have been monitored and studied closely since Dian Fossey began her work with them in 1967, after establishing the Karisoke Research Center. She started the process of habituating them to the presence of human observers, so that she could closely observe and document their behaviors, status, movements and other important information. Today, Fossey Fund trackers and researchers protect and study about half of the mountain gorillas in Rwanda.Decades of daily direct protection have saved critically endangered mountain gorillas from extinction and stabilized their tiny population. We have now expanded the same methods to help save nearby Grauer’s gorillas, which have had dramatic declines. All types of gorillas are endangered and face serious threats to their survival, but our daily protection works! 


The Senkwekwe Center, located at park headquarters in Rumangabo, is the only facility in the the world that cares for mountain gorilla orphans. Each of the four gorillas living at the center was victimized by poachers or animal traffickers, and likely witnessed family members being murdered. Thanks to the financial support of individuals around the world – and the loving care provided by their human caregivers – the orphans now lead happy and secure lives in their forested enclosure. The orphans also receive veterinary care from the Gorilla Doctors, arguably the most skilled and experienced gorilla veterinarians in the world.

The Jane Goodall Institute JGI

Protecting chimpanzees is at the heart of JGI’s work, reflecting Jane Goodall’s historic legacy. No other organization is as closely aligned to the work of understanding and protecting chimpanzees as the Jane Goodall Institute.Protecting chimpanzees is at the heart of JGI’s work, reflecting Jane Goodall’s historic legacy. No other organization is as closely aligned to the work of understanding and protecting chimpanzees as the Jane Goodall Institute.


Lola ya Bonobo is the world’s only organization to provide lifetime care to bonobos orphaned by the illegal trade in endangered wildlife.  We are on the front line in the battle to protect bonobos in the only country they are found – The Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Bonobo Project

Our Mission is to protect bonobos (Pan paniscus), preserve their tropical rainforest habitat, and empower local communities in the Congo Basin.

By working with local Congolese people through cooperative conservation and community development programs, and by shaping national and international policy, the Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI) is establishing new protected areas and leading efforts to safeguard bonobos wherever they are found.

Bonobo Conservation Initiative

The Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI) is a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Our mission is to protect bonobos, preserve their tropical rainforest habitat, and empower local communities in the Congo Basin. BCI is the only international organization solely dedicated to protecting wild bonobos and their rainforest habitat. Together with Congolese communities and organizations, the DRC government, and international partners, BCI is implementing innovative solutions to address the complex problem of bonobo conservation.

International Animal Rescue

At International Animal Rescue we do exactly what our name says – we save animals from suffering around the world. Our work includes cutting free and caring for dancing bears in India, rescuing primates from captivity in Indonesia and sterilising and vaccinating stray dogs and cats in developing countries. Wherever possible we return rescued animals to their natural environment but we also provide a permanent home for animals that can no longer survive in the wild.

As human populations expand, wildlife comes under increasing threat. By rescuing individual animals belonging to species like the orangutan and reintroducing them into protected areas in the wild, our work also plays a role in the conservation of the species as a whole.