"My nation commits itself before all humanity to protecting and safeguarding the great apes in and outside the protected habitats," Yerodia Abdoulaye Ndombasi, one of four deputy presidents, said on Monday for the host country, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The weeklong meeting brings together about 150 people from 23 so-called "great ape range states" and wildlife experts in the DRC capital to consider proposals for ensuring the survival of the primates.

Pressure from disease, war, deforestation and the bushmeat trade has pushed the "great apes" - highland and lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos (pygmy chimps) in Africa and orangutans in southeast Asia - to the verge of annihilation, with experts predicting their complete demise by 2055 without speedy action.

Yerodia said the DRC government would "apply the law and ensure high investment in human, natural and financial resources" to reduce the risks to species in the country's forests, but stressed the need for the international community "to spare no effort for their survival".

Ambitious scheme

"My nation commits itself before all humanity to protecting and safeguarding the great apes in and outside the protected habitats"

Yerodia Abdoulaye Ndombasi, deputy president of Democratic Republic of Congo 

The meeting is the first at governmental level of the UN-backed Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP), an ambitious scheme launched in Paris in 2003 to sustain and begin to boost their dwindling populations by 2010.

Trophy and bushmeat hunters along with deforestation and war have reduced the global population of mountain or highland gorillas in the wild to only 700 in Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, which has the world's last remaining sanctuary for gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos.

Chimpanzees in west and central Africa are routinely hunted for food or trapped for the illegal wildlife trade despite prohibitions in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) treaty.

The conference, which is to end on Friday, is organised with support from the UN Development Programme and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Preserves

With only about 100 key great ape populations left in the wild, surveys of 24 allegedly protected preserves in equatorial Africa and Southeast Asia have found populations declining in 96% of the areas, according to GRASP.

In Africa, 70% of great ape habitats have been negatively affected by some sort of human encroachment, a figure that falls by only 6% for orangutan habitats in Malaysia and Indonesia, according to the surveys.

GRASP member states include: Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, the DRC, Indonesia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Malaysia, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.