Why more than half of primate species are threatened with extinction

Our closest relatives are being wiped out and it's all our fault

Jo Setchell
Wednesday 25 January 2017 14:57 GMT
The fabulous red-shanked douc
The fabulous red-shanked douc

Primates are remarkable. We’re all familiar with chimpanzees, monkeys and ring-tailed lemurs, but have you heard of the tiny big-eyed species, tarsiers, which weigh barely 200g? Or Cleese’s woolly lemur, named after John Cleese? The fabulous red-shanked douc? What about the scary-looking (and bald) uakari?

There are 504 species in all, which makes primates one of the largest groups of mammals. Some – those we’re most familiar with – are active during the day, but others come out only at night. Some eat fruit, others eat leaves, still others eat insects, and some hunt for meat. One species mainly eats mushrooms, and some even eat other primates.

Primates mostly live in tropical rainforests: two thirds of all species can be found in Brazil, Madagascar, Indonesia or the Democratic Republic of Congo. But they can also be found in grassland, snowy mountains and deserts, and some even thrive in our cities.

They can live in solitude, in huge, complex societies, or anything in between. Some swing through the trees with such grace that they look like they’re flying while others don’t seem to move very much at all. Some sing duets. Many of them are superbly colourful. Some are beautiful; others are ugly. All of them are fascinating.

 Who’s afraid of the big bald uakari? 

I’ve been studying primates for 20 years and I’m still surprised by new discoveries. Like the day I saw female monkeys attack a male three times their size. Or when I learned that some primates bury themselves in the ground to hibernate. And that capuchins crush millipedes and use them as insect repellent.

Primates are also essential to tropical rainforests, pollinating trees and dispersing seeds across these vital carbon stores. They’re our closest biological relatives, and we look to them to understand our own evolution.

Bad news for primates

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been part of a global group of primatologists who have assessed the conservation status of all those 504 species. Our results are now published in the journal Science Advances.

The news is bad – primates are in dire trouble. Around 60% of species are threatened with extinction and 75% are declining in numbers. Without action, these numbers will grow and more species will disappear forever.

Unfortunately, this dismal situation is our fault. Primates are mainly threatened by losing their habitat when it is logged or converted into farms or ranches. They can also be hunted for meat, or to supply the illegal trade in pets and body parts. Road construction, oil and gas extraction, mining, pollution, disease and climate change all add to the list of threats, often in combination.

I have flown over agricultural land where tropical forests once stood, and walked among the charred remains of what was primate habitat. I have driven along new roads and seen dead primates for sale. I have shopped in markets which sell ‘bushmeat’. I have seen baby monkeys captured, destined to die slowly, despite the best efforts of their human carers. I have worked with rescued animals and pondered their future. I have travelled on rainforest rivers heavily, invisibly, polluted by illegal mining. I have come across hunters’ camps deep in protected areas, and I have walked through silent forests, emptied of animals.

 Deforestation in Sumatra, a primate hotspots (W. F. Laurance)
 (W F Laurance)

People living in these areas don’t set out to exterminate primate species. I have talked with people driven to distraction when their subsistence crops are ravaged by wildlife, including local primates, with hunters who need money for their children’s schooling and medical bills, and with people who hunt primates to feed their family when there are no fish to catch.

The threat to primates is a result of political uncertainty, socio-economic instability, organised crime, corruption and policies that pursue profit over sustainability.

It is hard to be positive when faced with human-driven extinction of our nearest animal relatives. The situation is critical but the 31 authors (of which I am one) of a new report believe it is still reversible. To prevent extinction, human needs must be addressed in sustainable ways, whether that be through local schemes – such as finding ways for farmers to coexist with primates who forage for their crops – or global approaches to issues like deforestation.

There is no single answer. Conservation policies must be adapted for each country, habitat or species based on the exact nature of each problem. This is a formidable task. But our hope stems from exceptional projects and extraordinary people around the world, like the Virunga rangers who risk their lives to protect gorillas and other primates in DR Congo, or Fundacion Pro-Conservation Primates Panamenos, an conservation project for monkeys in Panama.

Solutions lie in increasing equality everywhere in the world, and taking responsibility for the implications of our actions. We can’t ignore political and human disasters in other countries any longer. We need to mintor primate populations, accommodate the needs of both primates and people in land use policies, and mitigate illegal trade. Yes, captive primates can be used to save species that are on the brink of extinction: but if a natural habitat disappears, there is no hope for them.

To reduce the pressure on primates and their habitats we must slash demand for tropical hardwood, beef, palm oil, soy, rubber, minerals and fossil fuels, and instead promote sustainable resources. This is hardly big news.

But now we must also make it unacceptable to choose excessive and unnecessary consumption over the survival of another species. Every consumer decision we make has global implications.

Biologically, extinction is a normal phenomenon: species evolve, and species become extinct and, from time to time in earth’s history, mass extinctions have wiped out huge numbers of species globally.

However, we cannot accept that we, as one primate species, drive others to extinction when are still able to prevent it.

Jo Setchell, professor of anthropology, Durham University. This article first appeared on The Conversation (theconversation.com)

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