The most extreme case of threat is on the island of Madagascar. Although this Texas-sized country is less than 2% the size of the other three major continental regions in which primates occur, and far less than 1% of the total area occupied by nonhuman primates around the world, it is considered a major region for primates in its own right. Indeed, its 5 families, 15 genera, and 111 species and subspecies (and counting) are comparable to the numbers for the three other regions: Africa – 4 families, 25 genera, and 186 species and subspecies; Asia – 5 families, 19 genera, and 183 species and subspecies; and the Neotropics – 5 families, 21 genera, and 216 species and subspecies. What is more, all the species found on Madagascar, are endemic, which means that they occur nowhere else (although two species have been introduced to the neighboring Comores). Our results indicate that fully 94% of the lemurs of Madagascar are threatened, by far the highest percentage for any larger group of mammals, with 66% of these falling into the Critically Endangered and Endangered categories.

White-faced saki (Pithecia pithecia), male, Suriname.  Photo by Russell A. Mittermeier.
White-faced saki (Pithecia pithecia), male, Suriname. Photo by Russell A. Mittermeier.

Why are nonhuman primates threatened? Our paper documents the main reasons why primates are in trouble. First of all, it is important to recognize that primates are mainly tropical rain forest animals, with roughly 90% of the species occurring in this biome. Up until the early 1970s, tropical forests were largely overlooked by the world, but in the past 40–50 years they have been very heavily impacted, and indications are that things will continue to get worse in many places. The biggest threat by far is large-scale clearance of forests for commercial agriculture, with oil palm leading the way in Southeast Asia and rapidly expanding into other regions. Soy plantations top the list in the Neotropics, with livestock ranching, especially for cattle, also having huge impacts in this region. Commercial logging of tropical forests, often touted as sustainable (it never is) follows, and the often-overlooked issue of wood harvesting and fuelwood production (especially charcoal) follows closely behind. Regionally, other factors can have enormous impacts as well, such as the building of huge hydroelectric dams in Amazonia that flood vast areas of intact forest, and mining and oil and gas extraction in many different regions. Slash-and-burn agriculture, though generally smaller scale than commercial agriculture, also has significant impacts, especially in areas of high human population density where the forest has little or no time to regenerate. In Madagascar, for example, it is the most important factor, although cattle-raising and some commercial logging also have taken their toll.

While habitat destruction tops the list of threats, we are also very concerned about the impacts of hunting, usually as a source of food, but also for medicinal purposes (especially in Asia), for biomedical research, or for pets. In regions such as West and Central Africa, much of Southeast Asia, and Amazonia in South America, bushmeat hunting can have disastrous impacts, severely reducing population densities and even wiping out entire populations of primates in otherwise intact forests and leading to the very sad “empty-forest syndrome.” Indeed, some of the first primate extinctions could result from hunting, especially in West Africa.

And of course we have the overarching issue of global climate change, which could have very serious impacts on primate habitats around the world, particularly in areas where forests have already been severely fragmented (for example, Madagascar, West Africa, Central America).

So what can we do? Fortunately, there is hope, and we believe that there are solutions. First of all, we should recognize that in spite of the dire results of the Red List assessments, we did not lose a single primate species or subspecies in the 20th century, the only larger group of mammals that did not suffer an extinction of one or more of its members over that period. The IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group, created in the early 1960s and becoming fully functional 40 years ago, has established a global network of primate conservationists now numbering more than 600 and divided into nine geographic regions and two thematic groups. This group carries out the Red List assessments, maintaining up-to-date information on the status of primates everywhere, and publishes four regional journals/ newsletters and its own journal, Primate Conservation, all of which can be viewed, open access, on the web and are provided free of charge to members and anyone else interested. What is more, the group uses Red List data to generate action plans, which are then rolled out to fund-raise for priority projects around the world. One recent example of the success of such plans is the Lemur Action Plan, which grew out of the Red List workshop held in Madagascar in 2012. A $7 million plan, it has now been fully funded by an anonymous donor through IUCN’s Save our Species (SOS) Program, with project implementation already underway.

Black-spider monkey (Ateles paniscus), Voltzberg region, Central Suriname Nature Reserve, Suriname.  Photo by Russell A. Mittermeier
Black-spider monkey (Ateles paniscus), Voltzberg region, Central Suriname Nature Reserve, Suriname. Photo by Russell A. Mittermeier

The principal actions needed are fairly simple and straightforward. We need effective protection of habitat through government-level national parks, biological reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, and indigenous lands of many different categories, and these need to be complemented by private and community-managed reserves, which in some places are more effective than those managed by governments. Where these exist, there needs to be a major effort to ensure that they are run well and that their biodiversity-protection objectives are fully met. Where coverage of remaining habitat is incomplete or inadequate, more protected areas need to be created and funded. One example of this kind of activity is Madagascar’s Durban Vision, a commitment made by past President Marc Ravalomanana to triple existing protected-area coverage in his country. This commitment held through a coup and two subsequent governments and was reaffirmed in 2014 by the current President Hery Rajaonarimampianina. The result has been more than 90 new privately-managed protected areas covering a number of lemur species not previously protected.

However, protected areas in and of themselves are not enough. They can be impacted by poaching and other extractive activities, and may not have adequate focus on some of the most endangered target species. To ensure protection of key species like primates, we also strongly advocate long-term research presence in protected areas. We have seen time and time again, in many different parts of the primate world, that the healthiest and most intact primate populations are found in close proximity to such research sites. What is more, these research stations provide essential data on the behavior and ecology of target species, measure and monitor population dynamics, and, of special importance, involve local communities through hiring and outreach. They are essential.

We have also become strong advocates for primate ecotourism, in particular primate-watching and primate life-listing, based on the very successful global bird-watching model. Bird-watching worldwide is a multi-billion dollar industry and has helped to stimulate interest in birds and their habitats in virtually every country. Primates, though not as diverse (~700 taxa vs. ~11,000) nor as ubiquitous as birds, are nonetheless found in most tropical and quite a few temperate regions and are very popular with the public. What is more, ecotourism in general, if carried out properly, creates jobs and engages local communities in many different ways, creating constituencies for conservation where they didn’t previously exist.

Mountain gorilla.  Photo by Russell A. Mittermeier
Mountain gorilla. Photo by Russell A. Mittermeier

Once again, Madagascar and its amazing lemur fauna provide an excellent model. There, dozens of local guide associations have sprung up to meet increasing demands to see lemurs, birds, reptiles and many other elements of Madagascar’s unique biological diversity, all starting from a single community model that began back in the late 1980s. These guide associations are made up entirely of members of local villages in the vicinity of key protected areas, they are excellent naturalists, and they earn a far better living than their other rural counterparts. What is more, they have become voices for conservation in their communities, and some have become actively engaged in creating new community-run protected areas, often adjacent to government-managed reserves.

Of course, the best known example of primate ecotourism is that of the Mountain Gorilla in the Virunga Volcanoes of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the adjacent Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. This effort, which began in the late 1970s, has become a major source of foreign exchange for Rwanda and Uganda (although not yet in the Congo, where unrest has prevented the growth of tourism), and it is largely owned by local communities. What is more, it is also starting to involve other primate species as well, including the Virungas Golden Monkey (Cercopithecus kandti), which now has habituated groups regularly visited by tourists, and the Nyungwe Forest National Park, Rwanda, which does not have gorillas but at least 11 other primates, including chimpanzees, guenons, colobus monkeys and mangabeys. On the top of the tourism revenue these parks provide for Rwanda, they are also the country’s two most important watersheds, providing at least 70–80% of the country’s renewable water supplies.

To stimulate further interest in primate-watching and primate life-listing, we have produced a variety of different materials to facilitate these activities for tourists. These include field guides for various regions (for example, Madagascar, West Africa, Colombia), fold-out pocket guides, and the first Primate-Watching App, this for Madagascar, which is soon to be launched.

Lion-tailed macaque in India. Photo by Russell A. Mittermeier
Lion-tailed macaque in India. Photo by Russell A. Mittermeier

Of course, as a global conservation community we need to address the drivers of destruction that are outlined in detail in our paper in Science Advances. But we can’t focus our resources entirely on these drivers because it will take many years, even decades, for the impacts of such change to take effect. In the meantime, if we don’t have a strong, targeted effort on the remaining natural habitats and the most endangered species, we may find that we will have nothing left.

That said, we do have an enormous opportunity with climate change. Though a major threat, it also provides some interesting potential solutions. ( There is now a growing (albeit slow) recognition of the fact that protecting tropical forests may present at least 30% of the solution to climate change through REDD+. What is more, the international community has now created the Green Climate Fund, in part to focus on nature-based solutions. This fund already has $10 billion, and this could grow by an order of magnitude in the remainder of this decade. Imagine if we could use primates as flagships for (and critical elements in the ecology of) tropical forests to galvanize further interest in the role of tropical forests in combatting this huge global threat. Again, stay tuned.

We hope that our paper in Science Advances highlights the importance of our nonhuman primates to the world and that it stimulates much further action on their behalf. We have a strong community already engaged and ready to scale up. All we need are the resources to make it happen.


Article published by Rhett Butler
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