A new report reveals that primates are facing an impending “extinction crisis,” with 60% of all primates now at risk of extinction.
The research, published in the journal Science Advances, assessed the conservation status of 504 species of nonhuman primates and found that three-quarters of the world’s primate species are undergoing an “alarming” population decline.
The primates are a diverse order that include apes — our closest biological relatives — as well as monkeys, lemurs, lorises and tarsiers.
“The situation turns out to be worse than most of us thought going in,” the study’s co-author Dr Paul Garber, professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois told CNN. “Primates worldwide are facing mass extinction.”
“It was surprising to learn that the rate of decline was so high,” agrees the study’s other co-author, Dr Alejandro Estrada, a senior research scientist at the Institute of Biology, National Autonomous University of Mexico. “This is of great concern as the figures suggest that we may be reaching a tipping point — or perhaps we are already there.”
Human activity to blame
All of the current threats to primates, including habitat loss, bushmeat hunting and the illegal pet trade, are being driven by human activity, researchers said.
“The destruction of habitat extinguishes resources such as shelter, food and water, divides social groups, and also leaves primates open to the risk of predation and contamination from pathogens,” Estrada said.
Activities such as mining, industrial agriculture, cattle ranching, oil drilling and logging are all responsible for dramatic deforestation in the tropical forests inhabited by primates.
“There are a lot of multinational corporations working (in these areas) and their goal is to extract resources as quickly and as cheaply as they can,” says Garber. “No matter which industry, there is rarely an attempt made to do it in a way that is sustainable.”
Estrada tells CNN that he wants the research to be a “call for global action to the scientific community at large, and to the public and policymakers to prevent this before it is too late.”
“If we are going to save these primates in the next few decades, it’s going to need governments to start working with the business communities. It can’t be business as usual or these species are going to go extinct,” adds Garber.
Habitats destroyed for palm oil
There are several primate species already on the precipice of extinction.
The Miss Waldron’s red colobus, which resides in southern Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, has not been seen by primatologists in 25 years.
The Javan slow loris is another leader in the current race to extinction, due largely to illegal trade. The same applies many langurs in Asia, lemurs in Madagascar, orangutans in Southeast Asia and gorillas and chimpanzees in Africa.
The Sumatran orangutan population has also slid dramatically over the last 10 years, with only 14,500 now remaining. The swampy forests that they inhabit are increasingly being cut and drained for palm oil production, one of the most damaging practices currently affecting primate habitat around the world.
Consumers who seek to mitigate their impact on primate populations can choose to buy FSC-certified wood and paper products, as well as avoiding products containing palm oil — a major contributor to habitat destruction.
“Palm oil is most notably in soap, but it’s even things like chocolates, most margarines and a lot of ice creams,” points out Colin Groves, professor of biological anthropology at The Australian National University.
“Consumers need to do a lot of squinting to find out if a product has palm oil listed on it — it’s sometimes listed as its scientific name, Elaeis guineensis. You need to be vigilant”.
Primates are a key indicator of the overall health of the ecosystems in which they reside. Their decline is a red flag not only for other animals, but also for humans.
“If we keep degrading and polluting habitats to such a degree that our biological relatives cannot live there, eventually humans will not being able to live there either,” says Garber.
“We need to understand it’s ultimately in our best interest to do something. Once the monkeys and apes go, it’s only a matter of time before there are some major catastrophes for people in these areas. People won’t be able to survive there either.”