|That may seem troubling, but even more worrisome, scientists say, is the swelling tidal wave of extinctions that lies in the future. In fact, research indicates at least one-fifth of the 608 species of primates that have evolved over millions of years could soon disappear.
If we care at all, it is a cause for immense alarm, says Ross MacPhee, an extinction expert and curator of zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. An intense study of a handful of the most threatened species, notes MacPhee, could help scientists zero in on what factors are threatening the animals. That information, in turn, could help determine the best ways to protect all primates.
Part of the Family
Primates, the taxonomic order that includes humans, apes and monkeys, are found on most continents in a variety of climates. The group is noted for hands that can grasp objects, large brains (and greater capacity for intelligence) and eyes that perceive depth. Like humans, sexual maturity comes late, and gestation of young is prolonged, culminating in the birth of helpless babies. The deaths of even a few individuals can devastate a group.
In January, Conservation International and the World Conservation Union reported that 25 primate species in Africa, Asia and South America face an extremely high risk of extinction in the next 10-20 years. Included in that list was Miss Waldrons red colobus monkey the monkey that no longer exists, according to a study published this week. Scientists recorded their final glimpses of the Miss Waldrons red colobus monkey in the 1970s. Another species, Vietnams Cat Ba Island golden-headed langur, is also feared to be extinct, although there has been no official declaration.
Depending on the region, a variety of circumstances produce hostile environments for monkeys and apes that once thrived. For example, many primates have been unable to adapt to the human interference of logging, mining, farming and road-building in their once-isolated habitats.
But often, primates are intentionally killed as food.
The problems stem from the double whammy of habitat loss and laissez-faire hunting, according to John Terborgh, a professor of environmental science at Duke University. Miss Waldrons red colobus monkey was eaten. The last ones went into someones pot.
The Need for Bushmeat
One of the most relentless threats against primates, especially in central and west Africa and Asia, is the bushmeat trade. Bushmeat refers to any wild animal that is hunted for food, usually in places where people are too poor to afford other sources of protein. Although people usually target antelope for bushmeat, they also hunt everything from rodents to elephants. As humans search for food to eat and sell in the market, many primates are caught up in the hunt.
In North America, hunters decide what theyre going to hunt before they leave their house, says David Wilke, a professor at Boston College who has studied the bushmeat trade in central Africa. In Asia, Africa and South America, a hunter will leave his house with a shotgun and shoot anything, as long as its big enough and is worth the cost of the ammunition. If he comes across a primate, hell shoot it.
The real impetus behind the bushmeat trade is an exploding human population, says Wilke. According to the U.N. Population Division, Africa had an estimated 221 million residents in 1950. Today, that number stands at almost four times that at 749 million. In 2050, the population is expected to reach about 1.7 billion people. Wilke adds that Africa isnt even as densely populated as many parts of the world.
Coupled with the huge increase in consumers are the devastated economies of many African and Asian countries. Cameroon once depended on oil for income, says Wilke, but when the price collapsed, many nations were overcome by their outstanding debts.
When the economies collapsed and people got poor, they went back to eating bushmeat, says Wilke. He says that because it is so crucial to the subsistence of so many people, it is impossible to tell people to stop eating bushmeat. But it may be possible to persuade people not to kill primates. Whats needed, says Wilke, are either incentives to keep primates alive in their habitat, perhaps for tourism, or strict enforcement of laws that keep primates out of the marketplace.
Eco-tourism has been successful in protecting primates in a few countries, but most scientists say it wont work everywhere because only a few places are popular destinations for wealthy tourists.
How much eco-tourism is there in northwestern Ghana? asks Terborgh. The forests of northwestern Ghana are the former home of Miss Waldrons red colobus monkey, where scientists say the jungle is silent from over-hunting. He says that although it might not be the best answer, it belongs on the list of ways that humans can try to protect their primate relatives.
Wilke notes that people will pay a lot of money to see charismatic species up close, but many species are elusive and are not easy to find in the wild.
Sitting with mountain gorillas is one of the most amazing things in the world, he says. But other species are arboreal, and from the ground all you see is the silhouettes in the trees. Its highly unlikely that tourists would pay two to three hundred dollars a day to see that.
Wilke also notes that civil strife in many parts of Africa keep many countries off limits anyway.
Tourists dont go on holiday to get shot at, he says.
Keeping Homo Sapiens Out
MacPhee believes the key to primate survival is national parks. He says the evidence shows primates will thrive if humans leave them alone, or can only enter nature reserves in small numbers. Humans have a desire to explore all parts of the planet, he says, but we have to draw the line somewhere.
We dont need to be able to drive our four-wheeled vehicles or snowboard off every mountain, says MacPhee.
Terborgh agrees that protected areas are the crucial element of any plan to protect primates. He adds not only must the parks be large enough so that people cant walk through them, but that the land use around the parks is also crucial.
If the forest reserves are surrounded by agricultural land, he says, people will go hunting in the forests and eat everything that moves.
Although the situation is dire for a large portion of primates, scientists say they have learned that many species can be surprisingly resilient. MacPhee notes that the American buffalo and the prong-horned antelope were almost wiped out before humans stepped in just before extinction. Both species had been hunted down to only a few hundred individuals. Although small gene-pools can leave animals vulnerable to disease because of inbreeding, endangered species are not always doomed, says MacPhee.
As long as there is survival of a few individuals somewhere, and as long as humans leave them alone, theyll often come back, often quite rapidly, he says. A little protection can go a long way