Driving primates to the edge

5 August 2008 General News


The IUCN Red List of primates makes grim reading, says Conservation International president  Russell Mittermeier. In this week's Green Room, he says the sooner we listen to the message that our closest living relatives are telling us, the longer we have to save ourselves.



Bonobo chimps, like Kanzi, face an uncertain future

If these highly intelligent species are dying out, what does that mean for us, their human cousins?


Primates 'face extinction crisis'

Monkeys and apes are trying to tell us something. After all, some of the non-human primates that share 98.5% of our genetic code can and do talk to us.

Take  Kanzi, for instance; this  bonobo chimp understands thousands of words, uses sentences, expresses emotions and concern for others; even talks on the phone.

Whether certain primates, such as chimps and other apes, use language the same way people do remains a matter of scientific debate.

But one thing about primates that scientists agree upon today is that they are among the most threatened animal species on Earth.

Results of the most recent global primate assessment have been discussed this week at the annual International Primatological Society meeting, held in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The survey was done as part of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and it is grim reading.

Nearly 50% of the world's 634 primate species and subspecies are in danger of going extinct. The situation is most dire in Asia, where more than 70% could disappear forever in the near future.

News reports of a global species extinction crisis appear every now and then. Somehow, the fact that hundreds and perhaps even thousands of species are lost daily - gone forever, irreplaceable - has not roused much alarm among the general public.

Why it matters

Will it matter when the  chimps,  lemurs,  gorillas and  cotton-topped tamarins are all gone? After all, what has a monkey done for you lately?


The yellow cheeked crested gibbon is listed as Endangered


Right now, the message monkeys are sending could help us all have a healthier, more secure and prosperous planet.

If these highly intelligent species are dying out, what does that mean for us, their human cousins?

It means we have so seriously and destructively altered the Earth's landscape that these creatures can no longer survive in their natural habitats.

We've laid waste to forests from Latin America to Asia and Africa where these primates have lived and evolved, and where they are now perishing.

The larger, global impact of this kind of massive forest destruction equals one of the greatest causes of global climate change - which finally has captured the public's attention and is causing alarm.

Twenty percent of greenhouse gas emissions that are accelerating global warming come from tropical forest destruction.

In fact, deforestation makes  Indonesia (one of the world's three richest countries for primates) the third leading emitter of greenhouse gases.

Shrinking world

Habitat loss is the most serious threat to primates, closely followed by relentless hunting of some species to supply a luxury exotic meat market and for use in traditional medicines.



If primates are telling us to rescue them, they are also sending us a message that will help us rescue ourselves

In fact, in some places primates are literally being eaten to extinction.

It is horrific to see these animals in the open air bush meat markets, being grilled on fire pits and sometimes even being blowtorched to remove their hair, their faces frozen in final screams of anguish.

Forests where primates have historically occurred rely on these keystone species to remain healthy, productive ecosystems.

Many monkeys and apes eat the forest fruit and are the primary seed dispersers. A forest that loses its primates becomes a forest without seedlings, unable to regenerate and thrive.

That in turn has a direct impact on people who live in or near these forests and rely on the forest resources for many essential needs.

There is plenty at stake for the entire planet if primates become extinct. And that's not to mention our undeniable affection for these intelligent, fascinating creatures. We can see, and hear, ourselves in them.



Mountain gorillas have been caught in the crossfire of a land dispute


Diary: DR Congo gorilla rangers

Kanzi and his sister  Panbanisha, both born at a university research centre and raised by researchers, now live at Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where they would be found naturally, bonobos are increasingly threatened, largely due to habitat loss and hunting.

An increase in targeted local and international conservation efforts will be essential to help primates make it through this extinction crisis.

We must help developing nations where many of these primates live identify economic development alternatives that will conserve, rather than destroy forests.

Local people must be consulted and actively involved in finding the solutions that work for them and provide immediate and essential needs for their families.

If primates are telling us to rescue them, they are also sending us a message that will help us rescue ourselves.

Russell A. Mittermeier is president of Conservation International and chairman of global conservation group IUCN's Species Survival Commission's Primate Specialist Group

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

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