The monkey that could save the world

Endangered tamarin enlisted in battle to stop climate change
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Environmental groups have enlisted one of the world's most distinctive and rare mammals, the golden lion tamarin, in their campaign to prevent irreversible climate change damaging the planet.

The orange-maned tamarins, whose name derives from their resemblance to antique Chinese drawings of lions, are on the brink of extinction because their habitat, Brazil's unique Atlantic rainforest, has been all but eradicated. Barely 4 per cent is left.

The destruction of the coastal forest has received scant attention compared to the threat to the Amazon rainforest. But campaigners say that what has happened along Brazil's seaboard is not merely a warning of what could happen in the Amazon basin if policies do not change: it has already changed rainfall patterns.

International alarm at environmental degradation in Brazil is often not reflected among Brazilians themselves. Some 130 million people, or 70 per cent of the population, live in the area once covered by the Atlantic forest, yet few are aware of it. The UK chapters of the Earthwatch Institute and WWF, formerly the World Wide Fund for Nature, are among groups seeking to change local attitudes.

Tamarins are playing a lead role in heightening awareness among Brazilians. Not only can the rare animals attract eco-tourists, but restoring their habitat revives a forest which is more biologically diverse than any other in the world, including the Amazon. One patch of Atlantic rainforest contains more species than the whole of England.

In a private reserve in Rio de Janeiro state, the arrival of a troop of tamarins was heralded by a high-pitched squeaking and flashes of impossibly bright orange fur in the trees. Finally the creatures emerged to grab the bananas put out for them by conservators.

"If we provide them with the forest, the animals do the rest themselves," said Denise Rambaldi, executive director of Brazil's Golden Lion Tamarin Association. Planting just a handful of trees has rejoined two patches of forest and brought two groups of tamarins into contact, which will help to prevent inbreeding and preserve the species. With backing from WWF, which is also using the animals to win support for a scheme to revive the river São João near by, Ms Rambaldi's group is seeking to grow a "corridor" to unite scattered clumps of forest with a larger government reserve.

The troop is among only 1,400 tamarins in the wild, though that counts as a conservation success story. Thirty years ago, with 200 individuals left, the species ranked as "critically endangered", but it is now well on the way to reaching the target of 2,000 which could get it off the endangered list.

To stave off the complete eradication of its home, environmental charities are trying to convince young Brazilians that the Atlantic rainforest is a precious resource. At a camp supported by Earthwatch in the Jureia reserve, south-west of São Paulo, children spend weekends learning about the animals that depend on the forest - jaguars, maned wolves, tapirs, three-toed sloths - and what they can do to save the habitat. "Each of us has planted about 300 trees," said Terezinha Dos Santos and Leonardo Santos de Azevedo, both 15.

Most young visitors to Jureia have never set foot in a forest. But São Paulo has its own 163-hectare tract of Atlantic rainforest in the botanic gardens. The UK branch of another environmental group, Botanic Gardens Conservation International, helps to bring 12,000 of São Paulo's poorest children to see it each year. The first tree the children are shown is the pau brazil, which gave the country its name. It was exploited by the early Portuguese colonists because its core produces a red dye once sought after in Europe, and the species is now endangered. After centuries of exploitation, nothing but remnants are left of a coastal forest that once stretched for more than 1,500 miles.

"I've been coming here for three years," said Aline Soares, 12. "We need plants to maintain nature, so that we can breathe."

Unless millions of Brazilians her age get the same message, global warming may not be avoided, said a conservationist listening in. "Ninety per cent of the hardwoods felled in the Amazon are used in Brazil," she said. "We ourselves have to solve this problem."