09 June, 2007

Equality Beyond Humanity

Should the great apes be granted rights to life, liberty and freedom from torture? Well the Great Ape Project says they should. There is almost no doubt that, like human beings, the other great apes are clever, self-aware, emotionally complex and horribly capable of suffering. There is also no doubt that they, unlike human beings, are quickly going extinct. If the wild populations of chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orang utans are not gone in my lifetime, they will be gone in my daughter's. Something has to be done urgently if we want to save them.

Of course most people don't want to save them and that's the main problem they face. Some people are eating them. So called 'bush meat' is not just popular with starving people in remote jungles, it now has a worldwide customer-base - about 12,000 tonnes of bush meat (not all of it great apes of course) is imported to the UK each year, for instance.

But even if people don't eat gorillas and chimps, the chances are they are totally indifferent to their plight. Scientific work and medical research around the world is the very least of it. It is the huge, global habitat destruction that is crushing these creatures out of existence. And the political debate is on the effects of deforestation on global warming and therefore on our own economies. Never mind the world-wide genocide that is happening.

A recent news article about a rebel group threatening to kill mountain gorillas in the Congo is indicative of the contempt in which so many people hold the lives of our poor cousins. But it also shows up the enormous problems organisations like GAP face in securing rights for the great apes. This same rebel group killed a wildlife officer and wounded three people just before making their threat about the gorillas. If they don't care about human life, why should we expect them to care about the lives of apes? If we think cheap paper and furniture is so incredibly important that we have to chop down the world's forests, then of course we're going to let these almost-human relatives die for the sake of it. If we let people sit in our city streets and beg for food, or let our police and intelligence agencies torture our enemies, or lock up poor people for crimes that rich people get away with, what are the chances we will show compassion to any creature unable to speak out for itself - however much like us it is?

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