Conservationists Fight to Save Tiny Colombian Monkey

Cameron Walker
for National Geographic News
May 27, 2003

From Colombian villages to the theme parks at the Walt Disney World Resort, Florida, conservationists are working to save a tiny monkey from extinction in the wild.

The endangered cotton-top tamarin (Saguinus oedipus), which lives only in northwestern Colombia, has been threatened by dwindling habitat. Now, a research team from the United States and Colombia has been taking some creative steps to protect it.

Cotton-top tamarins have long been studied in captivity (thousands of them were exported to the United States for biomedical research before the animal was declared endangered in 1973), but "no one had done a lot of work with them in the wild," said biologist Anne Savage. She began working with captive tamarins in college, then switched focus to wild tamarins as a graduate student.

Now the conservation biologist at Disney's Animal Kingdom, Savage has combined scientific studies in the tamarins' native land with community outreach. The result has become the multidisciplinary Proyecto Tití, or Project Tamarin, which Savage directs.

The group works with Colombia's villagers to develop awareness of the tamarin's plight and create more sustainable living solutions that could help it and many other rainforest species. "Making the conservation of natural habitats and resources economically feasible for local communities will insure the survival of not only the cotton-top tamarin, but the native flora and fauna of Colombia," said Savage. "Our goal is to use the cotton-top tamarin as the flagship species for the conservation of Colombia's natural resources."

In the beginning, tamarins were little known, even in the Colombian forests. Savage said villagers who did spot a tamarin's shock of white hair believed that these monkeys were as plentiful as squirrels. When the biologist and her team surveyed Colombian schoolchildren in the late 1980s, more than 90 percent did not know that the tamarin was unique to Colombia's forests.

Through education programs and posters in schools and villages, Proyecto Tití has been making the tamarin a familiar figure in its homeland. Now, Colombia's Barranquilla Zoo has declared 2003 the year of the tamarin.

Science and Slingshots

Besides habitat destruction, another threat to the tamarins has been the local pet trade in Colombia. Villagers once used slingshots to snag parents from the trees and catch the young tamarins to be sold.

In response, Savage and her team started a program where children could trade in their slingshots for a stuffed animal of the cottontop tamarin.

Recently, Humberto Giraldo, a biologist and field coordinator for Proyecto Tití, returned to one village in search of a slingshot for an educational display. He couldn't find one. When he headed to the market for materials to make his own, the owner told him he wouldn't sell slingshot stuff anymore, because they hurt the tamarins.

Now, these monkeys are trapped only to learn more about their behavior and habitat. Because the monkeys are so hard to spot, Savage and her team use brightly colored, nontoxic hair dye to identify individual monkeys. Some tamarins have also been fitted with VHF transmitters, so the researchers can follow their movements and learn how and where the monkeys travel.

Continued on Next Page >>


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