Sarrah Jasmin reveals the new research that highlights the urgent need for conservation as primate numbers decline in the wild
Non-human primates are the closest biological relatives to humans, with recent research showing up to a 98% similarity in DNA with bonobos and chimpanzees. However, over half of primates globally are threatened with extinction, and of these, around 60% are listed under the highest level of concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Researchers from the University of Illinois, led by Dr Paul Garber, are part of a global team of scientists who have been analysing primate populations and possible conservation efforts for over 20 years. Their recent research examines patterns in forest loss (mainly due to economic pressures), as well as the reasons behind this rapid decline. The results of their studies, published in Science Advances, suggest that the probability of multiple primate extinctions in our lifetime is increasing, with many species, such as the much-loved orangutan, facing extinction within the next 5-10 years.
The comprehensive paper also identifies the core reason for the rapid decline in primates as habitat destruction, mainly for palm oil plantations. Further reasons include agriculture, pasture for cattle, other crops such as sugar and soybeans, and logging. Following habitat degradation, hunting to fuel the illegal bush meat trade and live capture for the wildlife trade are also high on the list, both of which are facilitated by deforestation.
Specifically, global market demands for substances like palm oil, sugar and tropical wood are responsible for widespread deforestation, with the demand for palm oil alone accounting for 7,200 acres of forest being cleared daily. As a consequence, animals like gorillas and macaques are devoid of a home. Exposed, their chances of live capture or being hunted are also increased.
Palm oil accounts for over 30% of the world’s vegetable oil production. However, whilst initially confined to forests in Indonesia and Malaysia, Garber and his team have found that the recent expansion of plantations into southwest China has drastically reduced the population of Nomascus hainanus. Formerly known as the Hainan gibbon, there are as little as 20 still alive today. As the World’s population increases, the demand for such production is also escalating. The island of Madagascar, for example, whose population has risen from six to 25 million in the last 50 years, now only has 20% of its forest remaining.
To highlight the severity of the problem, other researchers, led by Dr Lisa Gould at the University of Victoria, conducted a study on the island. Here, the researchers visited 34 sites that they had previously marked as habitat locations for lemur species. However, upon revisiting these sites, 15 appeared to have no surviving populations, leading Gould and her team to conclude that the lemurs that once inhabited such areas, including the famous ring-tailed Lemur catta, have become locally extinct. Now, the number of ring-tailed lemurs on the entire island is estimated to be only 2,000.
Given that this particular species of lemur can withstand intense environmental pressures, either as a result of natural causes or the actions of mankind, Gould and her team now express concern for other primate populations on the island and surrounding areas, such as gorillas and chimpanzees, who are even more vulnerable to changing landscapes and fragmented habitats.
Additionally, Garber’s research team also found that the illegal wildlife trade is booming, with over 200,000 monkeys in Peru alone trafficked annually. For example, the Titi monkey is now only found in less than 700 square feet of forest in Peru, where locals capture infants and sell them in markets for as little as $10.
Nevertheless, despite numerous threats and rapidly declining populations, primatologist Dr Christoph Schwitzer of the IUCN believes there is potential to repair the situation if effective conservation efforts are put in place. To make amends, Garber’s and Schwitzer’s research suggests solutions based on reducing population growth, as well as developing sustainable land-use initiatives via investment from governments, NGOs and the private sector. Such solutions include encouraging primate eco-tourism, which has already proven successful in countries such as Rwanda. In turn, these could also benefit local residents, who could become stakeholders in such processes.
As Garber and his team highlight, these ammendments would require significant changes, including stricter laws regarding land-use and the expansion of protected areas for primates, all of which would need to be implemented not only by governing bodies, but by local residents themselves. Yet, such changes are key to ensuring that the primates of the world not only survive, but thrive, and it is now our duty to safeguard these beautiful creatures.
Image credit: unsplash.com