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Extinction Threatens Half of Primate Types, Study Says

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
August 5, 2008
 
About half the world's apes, monkeys, and other types of primates are in danger of extinction, according to a new study that predicts a bleak future for many of humankind's closest relatives.

Primates are falling prey to intense hunting and rapidly losing their habitats to deforestation, the study released Monday said.

"[This is] a very important and absolutely horrifying report," said primatologist Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at Emory University.

"There have been isolated pieces of data around for years, which have sketched an ever darker picture," de Waal said, adding that the report supports the bleaker prognoses.

Hundreds of international experts helped to classify 634 primates for the Red List of Threatened Species using criteria established by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They found nearly half the species and supspecies are endangered.

Scientists have discovered 53 new primate species since 2000, including 40 on Madagascar alone, and no one knows what others may exist. Some could vanish before they are even known to science.

(Related story: "Newfound Monkey 'Rarest in Africa,' Expert Says" [August 4, 2008])

The report, released at the 22nd International Primatological Society Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland, was funded by Conservation International (CI), IUCN, the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation, and Disney's Animal Kingdom.

"Scary" Situation in Asia

The news was particularly bad for Asian primates—more than 70 percent of which are listed as "vulnerable," "endangered," or "critically endangered."

"I think what's most alarming is just how bad the situation is in the Asian region, particularly in Southeast Asia," said Mike Hoffmann, an IUCN scientist based in Washington, D.C.

"In countries like Vietnam and Cambodia pretty much 90 percent of the primate fauna [including gibbons, monkeys, and langurs] is at risk of extinction. That is pretty scary."

Many primates are caught between the two distinct threats: hunting and habitat loss.

In a statement from Edinburgh, CI's Russel A. Mittermeier said, "Tropical forest destruction has always been the main cause, but now it appears that hunting is just as serious a threat in some areas, even where the habitat is still quite intact."

"In many places, primates are quite literally being eaten to extinction," added Mittermeier, president of CI and longtime chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission's Primate Specialist Group.

Hunting feeds an insatiable appetite for bush meat, but it also satisfies demand for the primate pet trade and the many body parts used in traditional Chinese medicine—particularly in Southeast Asia.

IUCN's Hoffmann added, "When you go into even some of the protected areas there, you just don't see anything. The forest is pretty much empty."

Glimmer of Hope?

De Waal said the primates' plight appears grim.

"It is reason to be extremely pessimistic," he said. "This situation can be changed only with the explicit support of governments in the primates' native countries as well as the international community."

But IUCN's Hoffmann stressed that such support could turn the tide.

"We already know that if we invest in targeted conservation action we can see results," he said.

Conservation efforts in Brazil, for example, led the black lion tamarin, and golden lion tamarin to be downlisted to "endangered" from "critically endangered" in 2003.

"The problem is that [conservation efforts] require continuous investment," Hoffmann said.

"Once you initiate a conservation action plan, you're probably going to see some rewards, and species recovering, but then you cannot assume the species is safe."

Hoffmann encouraged people in primate-poor locales like the Unites States and Europe to get out and visit nations that have primates.

"See what people are doing on the ground to save these species," he said. "Local conservation NGOs are out there doing fantastic work. Ask how you can get involved in some way."

Sue Margulis, of the University of Chicago and the Lincoln Park Zoo, said conservation can also start much closer to home.

"It's painfully easy to ignore the role that each of us can play in primate conservation, because the ex situ work is so far removed from our daily lives," she said.

"However, it's critical that we recognize that even small things that we do can make a conservation impact, and do whatever we can in this regard, whether it is recycling cell phones or purchasing products made with sustainable palm oil [which combats deforestation], we need to act."

Emory's De Waal said that all primates have intrinsic value as species and play important roles in their environments.

"Primates also help us understand ourselves and our evolution, since we are primates," he said.

"It's a pathetic situation that half our relatives may disappear."
 

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