Site icon Conservation news

The woman building the forest corridors saving Brazil’s black lion tamarin

  • The Black Lion Tamarin Conservation program created a series of forest corridors to connect areas with isolated populations of this once critically endangered primate, bringing back to life pars of the Atlantic Forest in the Pontal do Paranapanema region of inland São Paulo state in Brazil.
  • Gabriela Rezende, the biologist currently leading the program, was one of the winners of the prestigious Whitley Award for environmental conservation in 2020. The $50,000 prize will fund the continuing efforts to protect the black lion tamarin.
  • The plan is to open more corridors and manage the population, moving the animals to accelerate their occupation of the forest and expand the population.
  • The project also involves environmental education, professional training and the generation of income for the local population.

In the 1970s, the black lion tamarin was declared critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It was a dire situation: only an estimated 100 were left in the wild. But the little primate, Leontopithecus chrysopygus, gradually became the protagonist of a success story — so much so that it has turned into a symbol of conservation in Brazil’s São Paulo state, the only place on Earth where it’s found.

In 2008, its conservation status was upgraded to “endangered,” the category in which it remains to this day. The population, estimated today at around 1,800, attests to this recovery.

The species has made it through the worst thanks to the Black Lion Tamarin Conservation program, founded in 1984 and headed since 2011 by biologist Gabriela Rezende. The initiative encompasses scientific research, environmental education and forest restoration.

Rezende is a researcher at the Institute for Ecological Research (known by its Portuguese acronym Ipê) and one of six winners of the Whitley Award in 2020, the biggest environmental conservation award in the world, given by the Whitley Fund for Nature in the U.K. The awards ceremony, traditionally held in London, has been postponed this year due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, but the winners will still receive the prize money that comes with the award to use on their projects.

“One of the award’s merits is that it shows our work and inspires people to get involved in conserving nature, something that should be part of everyone’s daily life,” says Rezende, who published a book, Mico-leão-preto: a história de sucesso na conservação de uma espécie ameaçada (Black lion tamarin: The success story in the conservation of an endangered species), in 2014.

Biologist Gabriela Rezende runs the Black Lion Tamarind Conservation program in Pontal do Paranapanema. This year, she won the prestigious Whitley Award for her work. Image courtesy of the Institute for Ecological Research (Ipê).

Forest corridors expand territory

Endemic to inland São Paulo, and resisting within a region of heavy agricultural activity, the black lion tamarin has always been most threatened by forest fragmentation, which isolates populations and results in their decline. This is why conservationists have pursued a strategy of creating forest corridors connecting stretches of the Atlantic Forest in Pontal do Paranapanema.

The £40,000 ($50,000) Whitley Award will help establish these corridors and a management plan to prevent genetic inbreeding among the tamarins that are isolated in small areas. “We’re going to move the animals to forests where they are not currently found,” Rezende says. “When we provide more space for this population, they tend to reproduce and occupy new areas.”

One of the corridors is more than 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) long, with about 2.5 million planted trees. It is the largest forest corridor in Brazil and connects Morro do Diabo State Park, the primate’s main habitat, to the Tucano fragment, one of four stretches of forest located within the Black Lion Tamarin Ecological Station.

Morro do Diabo State Park, the dark green area, is the black lion tamarin’s main habitat. Areas with restored vegetation (red lines, which form the largest planted forest corridor in Brazil) and vegetation in recovery (blue lines, the North Corridor) connect the reserve to other fragments of the Atlantic Forest. Image courtesy of the Institute for Ecological Research (Ipê).

In planning the corridors, Rezende took into account forests that needed restoration based on the Brazilian Forest Code. The code requires that 20% of private properties be designated as legal reserves and the re-establishment of permanent preservation areas (PPAs). “We began the restoration and designed the corridors in the landscape so that the fragments would be connected,” Rezende says.

The new corridors, combined with the existing ones, will connect the black lion tamarin populations in a continuous forest area of about 45,000 hectares (111,000 acres). The so-called North Corridor is already underway and should connect six forest fragments to the north of Morro do Diabo State Park.

“Thanks to the North Corridor, we’ll have connected all the populations of Pontal do Paranapanema,” Rezende says. “Once we’re able to allow the animal to use the entire area, we could see a population increase of 30%. Then, we would be close to our goal: to once again upgrade the species’ conservation status on the Red List.”

The conservation program restores degraded areas and creates ecological corridors that benefit the ecosystem in which tamarins occur. Image courtesy of the Institute for Ecological Research (Ipê).

The forest restoration process is a long-term strategy. “We have registered several species in the restored corridor, such as anteaters, tapirs, pumas and ocelots. These animals use the area for movement. But we have yet to register the black lion tamarin, which has additional demands regarding the structure of the forest before occupying these areas,” Rezende says.

She estimates it will take five to 10 years to complete the restoration of all the planned corridors. After this, the forest will still need another 10 to 20 years to take on a functional structure that serves for the black lion tamarin’s complete use. Hence the importance of the animals’ movement according to the management plan, which will accelerate the process by allowing them to occupy forest fragments that are currently connected and suitable for use but still empty.

A conservation success story

The Black Lion Tamarin Conservation program began in 1984 with primatologist Claudio Padua, who moved to Pontal de Paranapanema years earlier with the objective of researching these animals. At the time, with the construction of the Rosana hydroelectric dam underway on the Paranapanema River, animals were being rescued from the area that was about to be flooded.

The program gave rise to the Institute for Ecological Research and, in 1999, a Whitley Award for Padua, the first Brazilian to win the prize. “Everyone who works with endangered species dreams of seeing the animals with enough areas to form a viable population. And off the Red List,” he says.

Now the vice president of Ipê, Padua attributes the program’s success to persistence: “Everything that I’ve seen work so far was because someone persisted until they succeeded.” He says he also considers a greater balance in the relationship between humans and nature essential. “Human beings need to understand that they are part of nature. It’s a good time for us to be discussing this.”

Padua says he sees environmental education as an important ally. When he first came to the area to begin his work, he used to ask people what good things they had there. Most people told him all they had was forest. This answer has changed over time. “A few years later, the residents started to say: I’m very proud of what we have here. This is our survival and the rest of the biodiversity’s survival,” he says.

Boxed into restricted areas of forest and with a small population decades ago, the black lion tamarin has recovered thanks to continuous efforts. Today it is a symbol of conservation success in São Paulo state. Image courtesy of the Institute for Ecological Research (Ipê).

Collective learning through environmental education and planting

The conservation program also maintains nine tree nurseries, administered by the community and managed by Ipê with its local partners: city halls and other institutions. The nurseries are located within the black lion tamarin’s conservation area and span the three municipalities of Teodoro Sampaio, Mirante do Paranapanema and Euclides da Cunha Paulista. Some of the seedlings they produce are used in the new ecological corridors.

Responsible for establishing a bridge between the research teams and the communities, environmental educator Maria das Graças de Souza sees the nurseries as spaces for collective learning: they provide knowledge, income generation and conservation awareness. “Students from local schools know the species that are forested and those that are part of the diet of the fauna being studied,” she says.

The restoration of vegetation in degraded areas not only benefits the black lion tamarin, but also big cats and mammals, such as the Brazilian tapir. Recognized for her work to conserve the tapir, Patrícia Medici, also a researcher at Ipê, was honored this year with the Whitley Gold Award, the main prize given by the Whitley Fund for Nature.

Rezende says it’s important to use the role of charismatic species to leverage conservation projects. She says she’s motivated to keep fighting for the black lion tamarin. “The tamarin is unable to do anything to save its own species. And we, human beings, are the ones who are destroying their environment,” she says. “So, when I got the opportunity to see this animal in the wild, I felt partly responsible for its future.”

Researchers use an antenna to try to locate monkeys tagged with GPS radio collars. The animals’ movements are studied for research. Image courtesy of the Institute for Ecological Research (Ipê).

 Banner image of a family of black lion tamarins in the trees of the Pontal do Paranapanema region, the species’ only habitat on Earth. Image courtesy of the Institute for Ecological Research (Ipê).

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on June 25, 2020.