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Conservationists warn that many primate species could vanish immediately
These five rare primate species are among those teetering on the brink of oblivion

May 9, 2000

Dozens of primate species are teetering on the brink of oblivion in a new extinction emergency that has left scientists astonished and angry.

"It's all been happening at a time when we knew better," said David Chivers, a Cambridge University gibbon expert who has chased the world's smallest ape through treetops from the Himalayas to the islands of Indochina.

"I've spent 30 years on this, and now we don't seem to be getting anywhere," Chivers said. "It's ridiculous."

No primate has gone extinct in the 20th century. It was a remarkable feat of endurance for humankind's closest relatives at a time when 100 species -- especially cats, bats, insects and birds were vanishing every day.

But what had been hailed as a conservation triumph is beginning to look like a sad illusion. Leading field biologists, veterinarians and zoo curators will meet for four days in suburban Chicago beginning Wednesday to devise emergency strategies.

Deforestation, poaching blamed for decline.

New estimates suggest that 10 percent of the world's 608 primate species and subspecies on three continents are critically imperiled.

Renewed surges of deforestation and poaching in the 1990s, as well as shrinking genetic diversity, suddenly are thinning the ranks of many species to just a few hundred individuals, or a few dozen. At any moment, they could vanish forever.

An additional 10 percent of primate species might not be in immediate jeopardy, but will disappear without vigorous protection, researchers warn.

In a few cases, scientists aren't even sure if a species still exists.

A 'critical time' for primates

Take the Miss Waldron's red colobus. In the Ivory Coast and Ghana in West Africa, farming has all but eliminated the obscure monkey's swampy habitat.

Or the golden-headed langur on Vietnam's Cat Ba Island. This rare leaf-eater has been a favorite target of hunters who sell its bones, tissues and organs as traditional medicines.

"We're doing surveys to find them. There are some we haven't seen in a few years," said Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

"We've arrived at a critical time for the world's primates," said William Konstant of the World Conservation Union. "Close to 20 percent stand a reasonable chance of disappearing in the next 20 years unless we take decisive action."

But what action will be effective? Some ideas likely to be discussed: artificial insemination of females with laboratory-engineered embryos and the introduction into the wild of families born in captivity.

Political unrest, commmercial exploitation compound losses.

Primates are the highest order of mammals. Besides humans, they include apes, monkeys and prosimians, a suborder that includes more primitive lemurs and tarsiers.

Primates have been in worsening trouble for decades as the world's human population crashed the 6 billion barrier. Many of the world's foremost field researchers, including pioneering chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall, switched their focus from science to salvation as their cherished research subjects began disappearing.

According to CI's latest census, 92 countries are home to primates; but four -- Brazil, Madagascar, Indonesia and Congo account for two-thirds of the total.

Researchers blame recent losses primarily on political unrest and commercial exploitation of the creatures' habitats. They say none of the four countries consistently enforces timber, mining or wildlife protection measures, even in national parks.

It's no coincidence that endangered primates live in environments under assault. Researchers say they need to secure stronger commitments from governments and the corporations using wild lands in those countries.

"There will never be enough rangers to protect an area," said George Rabb, director of the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. "The nations have to believe it is in their benefit to protect their wildlife resources."

Indonesia, home to 10 percent of the world's primate species, already is the world's largest timber exporter. Wildcat loggers are illegally doubling the nation's timber cutting, and oil palm plantations are deforesting millions of additional rain forest acres.

Among the hardest hit species are orangutans and gibbons.

On the Indonesian island of Java, perhaps 400 silvery gibbons remain. On Sumatra and Borneo, the orangutan population has been reduced by 90 percent.

In the Brazilian Amazon, loggers cut 11,000 square miles of rain forest annually, an area bigger than the state of New Hampshire.

Near Rio de Janeiro, five species of tamarins, capuchins and muriquis are crowded into the remaining scrap of Atlantic Coast rain forest.

Entire populations slaughtered

In Africa, the biggest threat is poaching. Conservationists say hunters are slaughtering entire populations to supply urban markets with exotic meat. Among their targets are the drill, Sclater's guenon and the white-naped mangabey. "It's disgusting that people are eating their closest wild relatives," Chivers said. "And it's not a matter of people just trying to survive. It's the middleman trying to get richer."

To some degree, the crisis is a scientific numbers game.

In the past century scientists discovered 200 new primate species and subspecies. In February, scientists expanded the total by another 35.

They based the reclassifications on fine differences in appearance, molecular genetics and behaviors that are passed on between generations.

For example, gorillas now are split into two species -- eastern and western -- and further divided into five subspecies.

Scientists declared 200 gorillas living along the Nigeria-Cameroon border to belong to a new subspecies named the Cross River gorilla. Such smaller groups are much harder to sustain biologically, so they leap atop the protection list.

But, scientists say the reclassifications more accurately reflect nature's diversity and add urgency to protection efforts.

"In the nick of time we have realized these gorillas are distinct," said John F. Oates of Hunter College in New York City, "just before it is finally too late to save them."

Copyright 2000 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

For More information and to Help, contact the Balikpapan Orangutan Society

Last updated May 12, 2000