Sunday, July 27, 2008

Spain gives human rights to great apes

Spain is likely to pass a law giving great apes human rights to life and freedom. Last month a parliamentary environmental committee urged the government to give rights to the closest genetic relatives to humans. With cross party support, it managed to commit the Spanish Government enact a law within 12 months to outlaw harmful experiments on apes. The committee modelled their plan on the declaration of the “Great Ape Project” which has the backing of scientists and philosophers.

The declaration affords rights equal to humans for all the other great apes: chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans. It promotes the right to life, the protection of individual freedom and the prohibition of torture. The Great Ape Project was founded 15 years based on a book of that name by the philosophers Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri.

In 1993, Singer and Cavalieri wrote about the rich emotional and cultural lives of non-human great apes. The book recommended the creation of an international body for the extension of the moral community to all great apes. The book compared the slave trade in human and non-human ape societies and expanded the boundaries for legal rights for the other apes based on the evolution of hominids.

Hominids emerged out of the Great Rift Valley. The valley was formed 15 million years ago in a tectonic parting of the ways that stretched 10,000 km from Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley through the Dead Sea, the Red Sea and down to the Great Lakes of Africa that fill its crevasses. Along the rift, are active and inactive volcanos, as well as lakes, deserts and plains. In places, the valley floor is lower than sea level. The crack is widening and will eventually rip Africa apart. But for the now the valleys teem with life.

The Rift is also a theatre of death. At Olduvai Gorge, in what is now Tanzania, archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey found fossilised hominid skulls some 1.75 million tears old. Mary Leakey would go on to find footprints frozen in wet ash by hominid parents and their child fleeing an eruption that took place almost 4 million years ago. The long lifeline between Ethiopia and Tanzania was the home of human forebears for millions of years before they reached down to pick up a tool.

The valley is also home to many of the great apes including the chimpanzee. Seven million years ago, the common ancestor of chimps and humans lived in the forests of the valley. But no fossil record exists of this creature. Heavy rains leach minerals from the tropical forest grounds before anything can fossilise. But genetics show this creature exists. American physical anthropologist Richard Wrangham gave this ape a name: Pan prior.

The name meant ‘prior to Pan troglodytes’ the scientific name for chimps. Wrangham and others believe that climate change seven million years ago caused an ice age that dried up Africa. One branch of Pan priors moved on to the savannah in a desperate measure to survive. By the time the planet warmed again, these grassland dwellers preferred to stay in the open. While they had lost its ability to live in trees, they had picked up new skills on the savannah.

Those that stayed in the forest evolved into chimpanzees. They are exceptionally bright creatures and superb hunters. Their successful kill rate of 80 percent compares well to the 10 to 20 percent of lions. But like humans, they are also extremely brutal to each other. They will launch raids in other clan territories. There, they will ambush unwary lone males and maul him to death. Once they have carefully picked off all the males in this way, they will claim the females of the territory. Fights will then break out to determine the alpha male in the group.

Much of chimp behaviour is disturbingly similar to human behaviour. To give them the same rights as humans is reasonable, if a little perplexing in Spain which has no native great apes. But the ruling is also likely to be a shot across the bows of other animal related industries, including the bullfighting lobby. Certainly that’s how Pedro Pozas, the Spanish Great Apes Project director, sees it. He said that the vote would set a precedent, establishing legal rights for animals that could be extended to other species. “We are seeking to break the species barrier,” he said. “We are just the point of the spear.”

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