Our closest animal relatives are facing mass extinction within our lifetime. This is the grim finding of a massive new study on the survival prospects of nonhuman primates, published last week in the journal Scientific Advances.
“This is a looming tragedy,” said Paul Garber, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois, and co-author of the study.
It’s not just iconic great apes such as orangutans or gorillas that are at risk. Numbers are plummeting in three quarters of all primate species, with over half already threatened with extinction, the study says.
For example, a mere 50-odd individual northern sportive lemurs remain clinging on in the wild in Madagascar. Indeed, lemurs are the most threatened of all major primate groups—of the 111 known species, some 93% are threatened, said Anthony Rylands, a senior research scientist at Conservation International, in Arlington, VA, and another co-author of the study.
“Primates are very special to us,” said John Robinson, a zoologist and Chief Conservation Officer at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. “We are talking about a real family member here. Unless we stop the erosion of tropical forests, a lot of species will blink out in the relatively near future.”
The most aggressive threat to primate survival is the explosion of industrialized agriculture into tropical forests, the study found. Over a ten-year period up to 2010, large-scale farming of crops such as soybeans, palm oil, and sugar encroached into primate habitat totaling 1.5 million square kilometers—an area three times that of France. And rising demand for meat among emerging nations such as China and Brazil is driving the conversion of forests into mega cattle ranches.
The study forecasts that this conflict between primates and industrialized agriculture will continue over the next decades with new farms moving onto nearly 70% of the land where primates currently live. The researchers say new policies are needed to shift the agricultural expansion to areas with less environmental impacts.
“Big corporate interests in agriculture are ploughing through tropical forests—it’s overwhelming,” said Rylands. The tricky part is working out how to balance saving forests with the need to increase food production to feed the world’s growing population, he said.
In addition, primates are increasingly hunted for their meat, which is driving population declines in Africa and Asia. For example, in Borneo up to 3,100 orangutans are killed annually for bushmeat—far too many individuals to allow the populations to regenerate and survive, according to the study.
Trade in live animals as pets and body parts for traditional medicine adds to the pressures on primates. Some 450,000 live individuals and another 11,000 individuals as body parts were bought and sold between 2005 and 2014, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, an international treaty to protect wildlife.
Dwindling primate numbers will have a knock-on effect of forest growth. Trees and plants depend on primates to spread seeds and help the forests regenerate.
“If you lose primates there is no regeneration of big forest trees,” said Rylands. “You will get a complete change of forest communities.”
Primates are not the only group of animals at risk. Much of the world’s wildlife is under threat, in particular amphibians. But the proportion of primates at risk of extinction is among the highest, said Craig Hilton-Taylor, at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The IUCN produces the Red List of threatened species—the world’s most frequently used standard for species conservation status. The IUCN last assessed primates’ survival prospects in 2008. It will update its assessment, including around the 67 new primate species identified in the new study, Hilton-Taylor said.
Fortunately, we can rescue our fellow primates, said Rylands
“The good news is we can save them,” he said. “It is possible to bring many species back from the brink. But we need help.”
Conservation programmes are reintroducing species into the wild, and establishing protected areas for them to live. For example, projects protecting the northern sportive lemurs in Madagascar have helped the handful of remaining individuals avoid extinction, said Rylands.
Future conservation efforts need to focus on the four countries—Brazil, Madagascar, Indonesia and Democratic Republic of Congo–which are home two-thirds of all primate species.
The public can help too. Visiting zoos is a great way to contribute to wildlife conservation and learn about the threats to our natural world, said Rylands. Also, people can try to be more aware of the origins of the products they buy, and boycott those from companies with poor environmental and conservation practices. Instead, people should seek out companies that commit to greener standards through groups such as the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, suggested Rylands.
Ecotourism is also helping to protect wildlife while providing local communities with an income. Some ecotourism initiatives have been criticized for harming the local environment. Rylands advises tourists to seek out vacations that follow conservation guidelines to help protect wildlife such as those he helped produce for primates. The guidelines suggest, for example, that visitors wear facemasks when in close quarters with animals and they recommend limiting the number of daily visitors so the animals are not overwhelmed.
“We have not lost many primate species in last 20 years due to conservation efforts so let’s not lose any now,” said Robinson.
Perhaps a more urgent threat is the health of the globe’s tropical forests that primates and other animals depend on, said Rylands. Despite national and international policies to halt deforestation, tropical forests are still being lost at an alarming rate. Tropical forests are crucial for locking up carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, and contribute to climate change.
“It is not all gloom and doom for nature,” he said. “There are immense efforts worldwide for the conservation of our wildlife. The tropical forests are our worry.”
Natasha Gilbert is a freelance writer covering nature, the environment, agriculture and international development. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Scientific American and National Public Radio. She is a former staff writer for Nature, and lives in Washington DC.