Extinction Threatens Half of Primate Types, Study Says

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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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