Reuters — Sixty percent of the world’s primates are at risk of extinction. That’s the stark warning issued by 31 of the world’s leading primatologists.
The academics have published an article in the journal Science Advances entitled ‘Impending extinction crisis of the world’s primates: Why primates matter’. They warn that without immediate efforts to protect tropical forests from “unsustainable pressures”, humans could precipitate a mass extinction of our closest biological relatives.
The report also states that 75 percent of the 504 known primate species are suffering declining populations. Only two species are seeing a rise in numbers.
“We haven’t seen any primate species go extinct in the recent past, but we will begin to see extinction reports regularly, and that situation will accelerate,” said Professor Jo Setchell, one of the authors. “If we have 60 percent threatened with extinction at the moment then we will see that number rise and within our lifetimes, within our children’s lifetimes, we will eradicate other primates.”
The main threats to habitat come from tree logging or conversion of land into farms or ranches, while road construction, oil and gas extraction, mining, pollution, and climate change also have an impact. In addition, the hunting of some primates for meat or to supply the illegal trade in pets and body parts, add to the problem.
Setchell added: “There are many things that are driving primates to extinction, but the major problem is habitat loss and habitat conversion, and essentially it’s humans changing primate habitat into human habitat – logging for timber logging for conversion to agriculture, logging for cattle ranching; essentially anything that destroys tropical forests because primates are largely tropical forest species.”
According to Setchell, who teaches at Britain’s Durham University, “the absolute worst for primates is Madagascar, which is home to the lemurs, which are evolutionarily unique – and Madagascar has terrible conservation problems. Second after Madagascar comes Asia.”
Primates are the group of mammal species that include gorillas, chimps, monkeys, gibbons, mandrills, and lemurs.
Setchell told Reuters that humans have a moral obligation to protect their primate cousins.
She said: “Extinction is a perfectly natural process. Species evolve and species go extinct. The difference between humans driving other primates extinct and chimpanzees, for example, hunting other primates is that we know what we’re doing. Other species that hunt don’t know that they’re eradicating other species, whereas we know that we are eradicating our closest relatives.”
The report’s authors say governments must enforce existing legislation, while tightening international trade regulations. They add that it is essential to work with individuals responsible for logging and hunting, and help them find alternative sources of income, rather than simply try to enforce regulations from afar.
They have also called on people globally to stop buying palm oil or tropical timber, and fundamentally re-assess our consumption habits. “We need to learn to distinguish between what we want and what we need,” said Setchell.
The report points out that primates play an important part in the livelihoods, cultures and religions of many societies around the globe. They also offer valuable insights into human evolution, biology and behaviour, and the diseases that afflict us.
The report stated that “we combine the most frequently used standard for species conservation status [the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List] with data from peer-reviewed scientific literature and from the United Nations databases to evaluate human-induced threats to primate survival.”
Although somewhat expected, much of the data surprised the report’s signatories.
“They bring into focus what we already knew, basically. We knew that primates were in trouble, but I think even for those of us who work in primate conservation it was still shocking to discover quite what the scale of the problem is,” said Setchell.
The authors, led by Alejandro Estrada of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and Paul A Garber of the University of Illinois, insist the problem is reversible, but that the clock is ticking for hundreds of primate species, without immediate action