We humans have made the biggest impression on the modern face of the Earth, but what is our place in it? Are we mere stewards, here to reside upon and use this planet as we see fit? Or are we one with this world?
Whatever your opinion, ask yourself how far removed – if at all – we are from the rest of life. Compare ourselves to our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, the great apes; Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Gorillas and Orangutans. Yes, we may have risen as dominant species, but are they that far behind us?
It’s hard to argue that we don’t share something with our fellow apes that does set us cognitively and emotionally apart from the rest of life on this planet, when you see videos of captive chimps being released under a blue sky for the first time…
…or to see individuals like Kanzi the Bonobo quite actively blur the line around how we define ourselves intellectually…
It changes how we look at ourselves, and how we look at the natural world. And maybe we should reconsider how we act towards life like this. When our fellow apes can be so cognitively present, when they can understand and use language, when they can demonstrate emotion and even empathy, how should we consider them? Should they be granted some inclusion within our system of rights? The Nonhuman Rights Project, and a number of similar endeavours certainly think so.
It’s only fair, when we see ourselves reflected so clearly in great apes. These animals are fundamentally our history. Humans didn’t literally evolve from the species we see today, but we share a recent common ancestor – they’re the closest family we have. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. And just as importantly, as our closest relatives, they do document where we humans came from. We diverged from Orangutans (“Orang-utan”; a name which nicely means “Forest Person” in Indonesian) 15-20 Million years ago. We diverged from Gorillas around 8 Million years ago. We diverged from the Chimp/Bonobo line around 6 Million years ago (which went on to divide Chimpanzees from Bonobos a mere 2 Million years ago, as Bonobos liked to make love while the Chimps liked to make war). That evolutionary line has proven to shape the face of the planet more, and more rapidly, than any other in history.
Don’t you think it’s time we paused to respect how remarkable, and valuable these apes are? Intrinsically incredible in their own right, and also a profound testament to our own existence? There’s a project – The Great Ape Project – that’s seeking to do just that.
For the last 20 years, The Great Ape Project has been campaigning for the establishment of basic rights for our four closest relatives – Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Gorillas and Orangutans – a thought that I imagine has become a lot more mainstream in that time. Such simple rights would afford our cousins the protection to live in liberty; in better conditions for captive animals, and the protection of habitat without persecution for wild communities. Further to this, a proposal was launched at the end of last year to have the great apes designated as Living World Heritage by UNESCO, in recognition of the impact our genus has had on the life on this planet. From such a perspective, great apes are a cultural heritage that we cannot afford to lose.
But think of the ramifications this could have. With this simple – albeit legal – change of perspective, immense areas of land would automatically be protected from deforestation, as rainforests are the homes of these great ape species. Just see current examples from Ecuador for how indigenous people’s rights can prevent the destruction of vast areas of rainforest. That’s an incredible thing!
From a different perspective, this would have colossal impacts on, say, the Palm oil industry, and grossly f*ck-off companies like Pepsico who are currently being recognised for killing Orangutans with Doritos. That’d have significant implications for the global economy, which many (Pepsico, for example) would probably not welcome as a good thing. But then alternatives to Palm oil are being developed readily, so that void shouldn’t be left too empty.
Personally, I think these motives to award nonhuman person rights to our evolutionary cousins, and pay homage to them as Living World heritage are wonderful ideas – as does everyone else who’s signed this petition from Rainforest Rescue. It may seem like a pipe dream, but I’m writing this in the same week that Sea World have finally announced an end to captive Orca breeding, because they’re slowly adjusting to the fact that what they do is abominable. So there’s hope for our hominid cousins yet.