Mates in Peril – primates in danger of extinction

Mates in Peril – primates in danger of extinction

Smita Paul

Only the oldest hunters could recall the red-cheeked monkeys that used to sit high in the rainforest canopy on the border of Ivory Coast and Ghana. But even they could not lead researchers to Miss Waldron’s red colobus monkey. This summer, after combing the monkey’s swampy forest home for seven years, researchers supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society concluded that, for the first time since the 1700s, a primate species has slipped into oblivion.

The red colobus was first described in 1936 on the basis of eight specimens shot by Willoughby P. Lowe, a British museum collector. He named the monkey for his assistant and traveling companion, Miss F. Waldron. Unfortunately, the animal has been a victim of intense deforestation and relentless poaching. But unlike most species that go extinct, die long-drawn-out disappearance of Miss Waldron’s was well documented, notes Ross D. E. McPhee, an expert on extinction and the curator for mammals at the American Museum of Natural History. So many other species disappear before we are fully aware of them, he says.

Extinction is, of course, the end of the line, one distinct evolutionary branch broken off the tree of life. Although this loss had been predicted for years, the announcement comes at a time when primates around the world face increasing peril. A full one-fourth of known primate species are endangered, says Russell A. Mittermeier, president of Conservation International. And while we know little about Miss Waldron’s monkey, other, more familiar primates–from mountain gorillas in Africa to the orangutans of Indonesia to golden lion

tamarins in Brazil–are in trouble.

“This should be a warning,” cautions Jan Rafert, primate curator at the Milwaukee County Zoo. “If we can’t protect them, we can’t protect ourselves.”

This century, the rate of extinction will greatly accelerate without decisive conservation measures, scientists warn. Earlier this year, Conservation International published a list of the 25 most critically endangered primates. Many of the species, such as the black-faced lion tamarin of Brazil, were only recently discovered and have dangerously small populations. Others had stable populations a few years ago but recently suffered dramatic losses, such as the Sumatran orangutan. Others still were mistakenly grouped together with another subspecies–for example, the Cross River gorilla of Nigeria and Cameroon, once thought to be part of the western lowland gorilla population. But all these primates suffer from the same malady: the unabated destruction of habitat and the seemingly insatiable hunger of the bushmeat trade, the commercial hunting of wild animals for their meat.

If current trends continue, the larger monkeys, like Miss Waldron’s, will be the first to go, says Anthony Rylands, a deputy chair of the Primate Specialist Group of the Species Survival Commission. “They need a much larger area to exist, and when you fragment the forest with roads and construction, they can’t survive,” he explains. They are also more likely t to be targeted by hunters.

Species such as South America’s buff-headed capuchin are particularly vulnerable. Highly intelligent, they are very inventive in finding food in the forest, but no animal can outsmart a hunter’s bullet. Hunters target female capuchins and take their orphaned babies to sell as pets. The crisis here, as elsewhere, was created after inaccessible areas were opened up by roads built for the logging industry. With the logging trucks came hunters.

“They will shoot anything that moves in southern Brazil,” Rylands explains, because there is so little left in the forests near Rio and Sao Paulo. In northeastern Brazil, they still hunt only for subsistence. But even this level of consumption is damaging. “It is not uncommon for Five or six [human] families to move into an area and within two years all the primates will be gone,” he adds.

For species that are too small to make much of a meal, the main threat comes from forest fragmentation. Logging, cattle farming, and human settlements have been eating away at the wilderness for two decades, so even when healthy populations of endangered species are found, they are isolated.

The tiny golden lion tamarin ordinarily gives birth to twins. Within a week, the mother passes the babies to the father, to whom they cling until mature. About 800 remain in the wild, but they are scattered in isolated pockets.

Even more critical is the state of the black-faced lion tamarin. With only about 350 members left, the subspecies will disappear without drastic conservation–such as creating protected areas, reintroducing captive populations into the wild, and supporting ongoing breeding programs–Rylands warns.

On the Indonesian island of Sumatra and in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, orangutans are in a “pretty desperate” situation, according to Willie Smits, a primarologist and scientific advisor to the Tropenbos Foundation, which helps to rehabilitate rescued orangutans back into the wild. After the end of the Suharto government in 1998, just as Indonesia was reeling from political and economic upheaval, rainforests on both islands suffered from some of the worst forest fires in history. The orangutans fleeing the burning jungle were confronted with hungry farmers, who often killed the adult females and stole the babies to sell in the exotic-pet trade.

Smits estimates that the world may have lost half or two-thirds of the entire orangutan population. And despite a series of crackdowns and raids, the bushmeat and exotic-pet trade continues unabated.

Vietnam offers the perfect example of how scientists find a new species only to discover that it is already on the brink of extinction. The critically endangered Tonkin snub-nosed monkey was discovered in the 1980s, and the gray-shanked douc langur was discovered in just the last few years.

“We are still finding new primates in areas that we think we know pretty well,” says Bill Konstant, special-projects director of Conservation International and an expert in Southeast Asian primates. “It shows you how little we really know about our planet.”

The Tonkin snub-nosed monkey lives in family groups of up to 40 animals. But with increased hunting, the animals have become so nervous and wary that normal social dynamics have been disrupted and group sizes have declined.

The Cat Ba Island golden-headed langur is one of the world’s most endangered creatures. The latest count suggests there may be only 130 left on that isolated island off the coast of Vietnam. Here ecotourism may be a saving grace, Konstant says. Amazingly, these rare langurs are easily seen by boat. Along the island’s cliff face, they come out in the evening and move toward their sleeping caves.

But even with their protected status and the watchful eye of tourism officials, they are at risk to poachers. “Hunters will go at night with flashlights and guns and catch the animals when they are sleeping,” Konstant notes.

In this part of the world, monkeys are hunted more for medicine than for meat. The bones, flesh, and organs are boiled down to make balms and ointments for traditional Chinese medicine. “So the Vietnamese will hunt down their endangered species to supply the Chinese markets,” Konstant remarks. And most langurs are not fast breeders; the loss of one mother and child may take years to overcome.

In Africa scientists still worry about another slow breeder. Since Dian Fossey brought worldwide attention to the mountain gorillas of the Virunga. Mountains in Rwanda, these charismatic creatures have gone through enormous turmoil. Still, the great apes have not only survived but in some areas have actually thrived.

“They were all doing quire well–better than we estimated,” considering the situation, says H. Dieter Steklis, chief scientist of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, who Visited Rwanda last Between 1993 and 1996, there may have been more than a million people passing near the area because of the genocide in Rwanda. As mountain gorillas are susceptible to human diseases, conservationists had feared the worse.

Steklis tempers this optimism, however, with the thought that the majority of gorillas are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), where civil war prevents any research from being conducted and the bushmeat trade takes a heavy toll. The massive poaching of wildlife reportedly intensified 20 years ago in Asia. Bushmeat is not a new concept in Africa, but the recent dramatic commercialization of bushmeat in central and western Africa has fueled the primate crisis. Annual consumption in the Congo Basin alone is more than a million metric tons of meat, consumed by more than 25 million people in a billion-dollar industry.

Famed primatologist Jane Goodall predicts that the bushmeat crisis could lead to the virtual extinction of all apes from central and western Africa within 20 years. “When I began my chimpanzee research in 1960, there must have been well over a million [wild chimpanzees]. Today, at most, an estimated 150,000 chimpanzees remain. And for other primates, the situation is even more alarming,” wrote Goodall in an April 8, 2000, editorial in the Washington Post.

Even an area as famous as Gombe, where Goodall conducted her research, is under attack, according to Stewart Hudson, executive director of the Jane Goodall Institute. “There is the sound of shotguns at night, evidence of snare traps, and stories of poaching. The forest is under pressure as it has never been before,” he says.

And bushmeat is finding its way into European and American markets. In August, federal inspectors seized luggage from a Ghana Airlines flight arriving at New York’s Kennedy Airport. Inside were found the smoked limbs and torsos of 60 red, white, and black colobus monkeys.

Perhaps the loss of Miss Waldron’s monkey sounds an alarm that may yet be heeded. Most scientists agree that there is still hope. Mittermeier even believes Miss Waldron’s may yet reemerge; primates are very resilient, he points out. He believes there are still a few bits of unexplored forest habitat left where a few monkeys may have survived.

In some cases, leaving a primate’s forest home alone may be the best medicine. Evolution has taught us that a species can take a lot of battering as long as its habitat is intact, McPhee notes. “If you lose the entire ecosystem, then you might as well let the species go. All that money and effort is misapplied,” he says. “It is better to buy giant chunks of land and leave it alone.”

Most of the mass destruction of forests began during the 1970s, when large multinational organizations created huge projects such as dams, logging concessions, and cattle and oil palm farms. As consumers, it is important to be educated about where the wood in our products comes from. (Contact the Forest Stewardship Council,, [877] 372-5646 toll-free, and SmartWood,, [802] 434-5491, for more information.) In addition, controlling the bushmeat trade will require the development of sustainable economic alternatives, rigorous enforcement of laws on a local level, and international aid and pressure.

“If we just stop the most destructive forms of human enterprise, then we might not have lost anything at all. There’s still a chance,” says McPhee.

Smita Paul is a freelance writer based in New York City.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

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