Friday 20th May 2022 | Written by Joy Roberts-Chapple | Edited by Shannon Clark
Today is Endangered Species Day (20/05/22) and in an effort to spread awareness about the primate species which are facing extinction, we are celebrating the incredible conservation efforts put in place to save those on the brink.
Although today can be heavy as we reflect and draw attention to those primates (and various other species) whose populations are in decline, here at Primate Wonder we are all about optimism in conservation. And so, in today’s blogpost we are sharing a small but inspiring collection of the phenomenal primate conservation success stories out there! In doing so we hope to excite you about future conservation efforts and to show you the potential we all have to save our most threatened closest living relatives.
A conservation success story - The Golden Lion Tamarin
The golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia) is a new world monkey, endemic to lowland Atlantic forest in Brazil. Since the 16th century the Atlantic forest has been decimated. What was once more than a million square kilometres of dense tropical rainforest has now been converted to urban centres, cattle pastures, farmland and plantations. Within this fragmented habitat lives the golden lion tamarin, a conservation triumph. In the 1960’s this species of monkey was truly on the brink of extinction, having been pressured to the far corners of the fragmented Atlantic forest.
In the 1970’s, after discovering how extraordinarily low this tamarin's population was, researchers devoted their efforts to building a captive population, in hope of reintroducing individuals back into the wild and to bring back viable populations. Specialised areas, such as the Poço da Antas Biological Reserve were also created to ensure their protection and future security. At this stage of bringing the tamarin back, it was all systems go. There was a decade worth of efforts as conservationists went about researching the demography and socio-ecology of the golden lion tamarin, as well as building community environmental education and reintroduction programmes, and with ecologists working out in the field studying the suitability of habitat.
Through this time, 30 zoos contributed 146 captive bred golden lion tamarins individuals, all ready for reintroduction. The captive bred population meant experts were able to observe and monitor important social behaviours, nutrition and health factors. With this information, researchers were able to develop a strategic reintroduction programme.
“The aim of long term study was to understand the possibilities and means of protecting the species, and of reintroducing captive lion tamarins back into the wild.”
Fast forward to 1983, history was made. With a number of collaborations, the first major reintroduction program of its kind for a South American primate was underway. Since then, numerous conservation organisations, including WWF-US have contributed support towards this ambitious project. In the early 1970’s there were fewer than 200 individuals in the wild. Now, approximately 1,400 monkeys live in the wild.
Habitat fragmentation, the introduction of exotic primates, and disease such as the spread of yellow fever which targeted one third of the population in 2018, all continue to pose risk for the survival of the golden lion tamarin. Although these pressures are still present, there is no doubt past and present projects have been successful. Conservationists continue to fight in the golden tamarins’ corner, with projects from the 1970’s still ongoing and constantly adapting to ensure golden lion tamarins stay where they belong… in the wild.
Back from the brink - The mountain gorilla
The mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) is one of the world's most beloved great apes. Residing in the dense cloud rainforests of East Central Africa, the mountain gorilla has faced a substantial amount of threats throughout the last few decades. Falling victim to poaching, civil unrest and deforestation, the mountain gorilla population plummeted, listing them as Critically Endangered. In a field survey conducted in 2008 scientists estimated a mere 680 individuals were left in the wild. The mountain gorilla lives in two separated populations limited to 300 square miles, within three different countries. The first being the Virunga mountain range which sits on the borders of Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda. The more northern population sits within Uganda, known as Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, with a tip of their distribution falling into the DRC in the Sarambwe Nature Reserve.
Ten years on from the original survey, in 2018, the world was hit with the news that the mountain gorilla population had exponentially increased to 1,063. Research into mountain gorillas began nearly three decades ago where the habituation of gorillas was carried out as a way to better understand this unknown great ape. Researchers believe that the intensive conservation efforts of researchers, and perhaps more importantly of African citizens, has led to the impactful population growth. Habituation of any animal can be tricky and a huge risk. Sharing close proximity to humans when habituated means disease transmission is at a high and has the potential to wipe out groups. Additionally, being habituated to human presences leaves gorilla groups vulnerable to poaching. However, habituation has also meant conservationists can ‘keep tabs’ on groups, benefiting from daily group monitoring and protection. Combine this with veterinary interventions and anti-poaching patrols and you’ve got the perfect recipe for population growth.
However, the increase in the mountain gorilla populations hasn’t been without loss. This story wouldn't be a success without the countless committed Africans who risk their whole world to ensure these noble creatures continue to flourish. In the last 20 years, over 175 park rangers in DRC’s Virunga National Park have been killed on the front line protecting their gorillas.
Mountain gorillas are not out of the woods quite yet. Many threats still pose risk to the remaining gorilla populations including disease transmission (notably the most recent outbreak of Covid-19), deforestation, civil unrest and poaching. It’s odd to say, but the mountain gorilla's endangered status is truly one for celebration today.
The conservation enigma - The greater bamboo lemur
Classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation for Nature), the greater bamboo lemur (Prolemur simus) is one of the world's rarest primates. With the species once dominating a large range in the sub-fossil times with an estimated one million individuals, in 2007 their population consisted of no more than 100 individuals (captive and wild).
The greater bamboo lemur is now only extant in isolated and fragmented areas of the remaining eastern rainforest belt in Madagascar. Over three decades this lemur’s population had a reduction of 80%. Intense and prevalent habitat loss contributed to this decline, including the slash-and-burn techniques used in agricultural practices. Illegal logging, mining, removal of bamboo and climate change has also put pressure on the greater bamboo lemur's survival.
After discovering the near loss of the greater bamboo lemur, an organisation called The Aspinall Foundation found drive from this critical situation, and implemented a strategy to help shape the future of the greater bamboo lemur. Surveys for the project “Saving Prolemur simus” commenced in 2009 with collaborations from other organisations. The Aspinall Foundation and Co. led to an extraordinary find. A total of 20 previously unknown locations of seven greater bamboo lemur subpopulations were discovered when undertaking this ambitious project.
Once a full examination of the survey results were compiled, conservation implementation could finally begin. The team immediately assessed which areas of conservation needed to be addressed, concluding with community-based projects as a driver to protect and monitor the newly discovered habitats of the greater bamboo lemur.
The greater bamboo lemur was once known to be surviving through just 100 individuals. Thanks to the conservation efforts of The Aspinall Foundation and their collaborations, in 2015 their number was estimated to be approximately 1,000 individuals. The discovery of other populations has meant communities and conservationists are able to protect all remaining individuals. This knowledge can also drive studies in understanding this Critically Endangered species further, in hope to strategically raise its population.