Biologists Update List of World's 25 Most Endangered Primates

Over the past week, I have listened to and participated in many important conversations about the dire state of our natural world and how we can pay for the conservation action we need. I have also witnessed a growing awareness -- first observed on a global scale during Rio+20 in June -- of the concept of natural capital, the benefits and services provided to people by biodiversity and ecosystems.

Indeed, there is a growing realization that renewable natural capital and biodiversity are pretty much one and the same, and that biodiversity conservation needs to be central to any serious discussions on sustainable development and the long-term viability of our planet and our own species.

In the midst of all of these high-level discussions, we wanted to bring to the forefront the specific needs of some of the world's most important species: nonhuman primates, our closest living relatives. To do this, some of the world's leading primate experts have just launched "Primates in Peril: The World's 25 Most Endangered Primates, 2012-2014," the seventh such list since 2001.

This list -- a collaborative effort of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Species Survival Commission through its Primate Specialist Group (which I chair), the International Primatological Society (the largest professional society of primate experts), the Bristol Zoo and Conservation International -- is developed every two years during the biannual meetings of the International Primatological Society (IPS).

The list has taken on a life of its own over the years, stimulating additional funding and conservation action and playing a significant role in the future of the species that appear on it. The list is drawn from the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species, which periodically assesses the status of different groups of animals and plants.

The Red List's most recent mammal assessment in 2008 placed 206 primate species in the Critically Endangered and Endangered categories -- those with the highest risk of extinction. The selection of the "top 25" is made principally from the Critically Endangered list.

I'm happy to announce that we removed some long-termers from the list because of success in their conservation. The best example is the greater bamboo lemur (Prolemur simus), the only representative of an entire genus of primates and a bamboo specialist like the giant panda. It had been on the list since the beginning, and still only numbers in the low hundreds. However, because of the concerted effort on its behalf -- generated in large part because of its presence on the list -- experts felt that it could be removed and replaced by several other lemur species in more dire need.

Two that took the place of the greater bamboo lemur reflect the severity of the current situation in Madagascar. The northern sportive lemur (Lepilemur septentrionalis) lives in a severely fragmented part of extreme northern Madagascar; thus far, we have been able to account for only 19 individuals.

Another, the spectacular red-ruffed lemur (Varecia rubra), is restricted to the Masoala National Park on the peninsula of the same name. Once considered reasonably secure because of its presence in this large rainforest park, it has been under heavy pressure since the 2009 coup in Madagascar, which resulted in an invasion of this wonderful park by illegal loggers after valuable rosewood trees. As if it weren't enough that these trees are being cut down, the impoverished villagers sent in to do the logging are not supplied with food and have to hunt. Their preferred target is the red-ruffed lemur.

In addition to the six from Madagascar, the list includes nine species from Asia, where wildlife populations are more heavily impacted than virtually anywhere else; six from mainland Africa; and five from South America. These species range from spider monkeys in Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador to two red colobus monkeys and a gorilla from Africa to five unusual species from Vietnam. Vietnam has had five species on this list almost since the beginning, but this has definitely helped to focus attention on primates in that country. Vietnam will host the next Congress of the IPS in 2014, and hopefully we will be able to remove some of its species at that time.

Of course, we aren't saving primates just for their own sake -- although that in itself is a worthy cause. Rather we focus attention on them because they are our closest living relatives, because they are critical elements in the health of tropical rainforests where more than 90 percent of them live -- often serving as seed dispersers and pollinators for important tree species -- and because they often form the foundation for improved livelihoods for local communities.

Indeed, primate ecotourism is on the rise, and it brings income to poor communities in many countries, from Mexico and Brazil, to Rwanda, Uganda and Madagascar, to China, Indonesia and Cambodia. Indeed, I have long been pushing the concept of primate-watching based on the very successful model of bird-watching -- now a U.S. $33 billion industry -- and see it taking hold in many places.

There are clearly signs of hope for the world's primates. We have not lost a single primate species to extinction in more than a century -- a better record than most other groups of larger vertebrates. However, without ramping up funding for their protection and for the world's biodiversity in general, this trend cannot continue. I am hopeful that countries present at this meeting will commit to increasing financing for biodiversity at the scale needed to ensure the survival of all life on Earth.

Russell Mittermeier is currently attending the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting in Hyderabad, India. Read previous blogs from the conference.

Dr. Russell Mittermeier is the president of Conservation International. He is also an author, primatologist and chairman of the IUCN/Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group. This post was originally published on Conservation International's blog.

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