To protect wildlife, play 'name that primate'

They're less than 18 inches tall, and mon-ogamous; the male plays the role of Mr. Mom. They have all the unripe fruit they can eat and countless acres of jungle in which to roam. They have everything a monkey could possibly want.

Except a name.

That's where you come in.

Starting Thursday, via an online auction at Charity folks.com, anyone can bid on the right to name the world's newest species of titi monkey, a tiny brown-and-orange leaping primate with a long, furry tail. It's a novel bid to raise much-needed cash for Bolivia's Madidi National Park, heralded since its 1995 creation as the most biologically diverse protected area on the planet.

The unusual auction is being watched closely in the conservation world. Protected areas - particularly in developing countries - are often plagued by poor or unreliable funding that prevents enforcement of boundaries and hinders scientific research. If successful, the approach could be a powerful new tool for countries interested in raising preservation dollars.

"Scientists have always named new species after their benefactors," says Dr. Rob Wallace of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, whose team first spotted the new titi in 2000. "We're just giving someone the opportunity to do that after the fact."

The 29 known species of titi monkeys are all found in the tropical forests of South America. They weigh in at less than 2.5 pounds and can reach 24 inches in height. Unlike many primates, the monogamous titis live in small groups of about half a dozen. Although difficult to spot from the ground, their distinctive territorial songs help give them away.

Dr. Wallace and his team spent nearly three years observing the previously undiscovered population, taking audio and video footage, and making comparisons with other primate species. Convinced they had found a new species, the team brainstormed about how the discovery could best benefit Madidi, located in remote northern Bolivia. Roughly the size of New Jersey, Madidi is home to diverse habitats ranging from just above sea level to higher than 19,000 feet and is believed to contain more species still unknown to scientists. It was during this time that they conceived the idea of an auction.

"Part of the Wildlife Conservation Society's role here is to help the government create a management plan for Madidi," Wallace explains. "Ensuring adequate funding is part of that. Ideally, we'd like to create a $30 million trust fund to provide the long-term resources the park needs."

Wallace doesn't expect the auction, which ends March 3, to net that amount, but he does hope to make a dent in that goal. All proceeds go to FUNDESNAP, a Bolivian nonprofit that channels financial support to the country's parks.

This auction is the latest salvo in a constant battle to raise scarce funds for conservation. In the late 1980s, environmental groups pioneered the use of debt-for-nature swaps. The agreements allowed poor countries to convert their dollar-denominated debts into local currencies that would then be directed toward rangers salaries, park management, and research. The 1990s witnessed a trend toward marketing rainforest-friendly coffees and other agricultural products. Now auctions are the rage, with tickets to sporting events, power lunches with Hollywood celebrities, and even walk-on roles on TV shows being used to raise money.

But despite these innovative approaches, adequate funding is a continuing problem for parks, not only in Bolivia, where the government's budget for 22 national parks is roughly $500,000, but across much of South America. While the creation of protected areas has blossomed throughout the region, covering more than 20 percent of the continent, funding for those areas must compete against other urgent priorities.

In Bolivia, for instance, the United Nations estimates that nearly 50 percent of the country's 8 million citizens live on less than $2 per day, and access to safe drinking water, reliable electricity, and healthcare is a luxury for many. As a result, nearly 90 percent of the funding for Bolivia's park system comes from outside sources. Madidi has just 25 rangers to protect the park's 4.7 million acres.

That poverty also challenges poor countries to balance economic development with environmental preservation. Global demand for soy - used primarily in vegetable oils and animal feed - is expected to grow 60 percent by 2020, according to a report by the World Wildlife Fund. That rising demand will likely be met by four Amazonian countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay.

"When you're advocating for environmental protection, you have to acknowledge the economic and quality-of-life needs of a country's population," says Thomas Lovejoy, a biologist with 40 years experience in Latin America and president of the Heinz Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment, based in Washington.

Nevertheless, Dr. Lovejoy expresses cautious optimism about the progress of conservation in this part of the world.

"When I began working in Latin America, there were probably less than a dozen national parks in the entire region," he says. "But today, the creation and support of parks is part of the modern agenda of governments."

The conservation community, he says, will be tracking this week's auction closely.

"Some critics will inevitably say that this auction is a gimmick, but if it gets people to focus on these critical issues and areas, then it's a success," he says.

Wallace echoes that thought. "This is about much more than the monkey," he says. "What we're hoping to find is someone who not only wants to name a species, but who wants to make a real, lasting contribution to the protection of a truly important place."

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