ROME (AFP) – Endangered gorilla species will be placed "on a higher pedestal" next year in efforts to raise awareness about their plight and threats to their habitat, a UN expert said Monday.
"The Year of the Gorilla 2009 will place gorillas on a higher pedestal," John Mshelbwala, UN Convention of Migratory Species expert, told a news conference.
Noting that the convention's conference in Rome this week is coinciding with a forum in Poland of the UN climate change convention, Mshelbwala stressed the benefits of tackling global warming and species conservation together.
"The Year of the Gorilla is not just about gorillas but about their habitat," said UN Environment Programme (UNEP) expert Ian Redmond, noting that the apes serve "as guardians of the forest (by) gardening the forest, pruning the trees and distributing the seeds through their droppings."
Renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, patron of the initiative, said in a statement: "It is time for us to pool all of our resources toward saving these magnificent creatures (and toward) ensuring a future for this close cousin of humankind."
The Year of the Gorilla, which follows similar initiatives for the turtle and the dolphin, brings together UNEP, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
The initiative hopes to attract at least 500,000 euros (630,000 dollars) in donations, convention executive secretary Robert Hepworth told the news conference.
Many experts fear that the gorilla will become extinct in the next few decades, UNEP said in a news release.
The last decade has seen a steep drop, from 17,000 to 5,000, in the population of Eastern Lowland Gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo, while Mountain Gorillas in the Great Lakes region number only 700, UNEP said.
The main threats include hunting for "bushmeat," a prized delicacy in western Africa, as well as logging, slash-and-burn agriculture and armed conflict, notably in DR Congo.
Representatives of more than 100 countries are attending the weeklong conference here that will examine measures to protect nearly 30 species including cheetahs, falcons, whales and dolphins.
The ninth conference of parties to the UN convention on migratory species are set to consider adding manatees, porpoises and several families of dolphins, among other animals, to the endangered list.
The population of falcons in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan has plummeted because of the demand for falcons by hunting enthusiasts.
The cheetah has become extinct in 18 countries, with only about 10,000 adults remaining in Africa and fewer than 50 in Asia.
Other species will be considered for addition to a list of land and marine animals in the less constraining "threatened" category, such as two families of Mako sharks in the Mediterranean Sea whose population has decreased by 96 percent in the past few years from overfishing.
UN officials also pointed to the link between saving the world's wildlife and boosting local economies where tourism and other industries depend on a country's natural assets.
In Kenya, for example, 150,000 people visit the Serengeti each year to see its famous wildlife, generating 5.5 million dollars in income according to 2003 figures.
The wildlife conference will run through Friday.