World's vanishing primates

Primates - apes, monkeys, lemurs, and their cousins - are our closest living relatives and have long fascinated us. They've also been regarded as bellwethers - so-called flagship species - for the tropical rain forests that shelter them as well as much of our planet's biodiversity.

Though not a single species of the 600-plus different primates became extinct in the 20th century - unlike some cats, marsupials, birds, and fish - the forecast for them in the next 100 years is cause for concern.

Indeed, of the top 25 most critically endangered primate species, many are down to a couple thousand or even a few hundred, according to a new list compiled by Conservation International and the Primate Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union. If all of the surviving primates on this list were brought together, they wouldn't fill half the seats in an average college football stadium.

More importantly, the total of primate species at risk of extinction is nearly 120 - or 20 percent of all primate species.

The main threat to these species is destruction of the natural ecosystems they live in - primarily the biodiversity hotspots, where more than half of all terrestrial plant and animal species are found. Combined, the hotspots cover just 1.4 percent of the Earth's land surface.

But the habitat destruction is often exacerbated or even exceeded by "bushmeat hunting" - the killing of primates for food or medicines.

Living largely in places like Brazil, Madagascar, West Africa, and western Indonesia and Malaysia, endangered primates have fallen prey not just to subsistence hunters but to the luxury-food trade in animals such as chimps, gorillas, and mandrills. In China, trade in primates' body parts and those of other wildlife as medicines and elixirs is enormous and growing.

On a recent trip to Vietnam, we visited markets and restaurants where wildlife was the main attraction. Located in the Indo-Burma hotspot, Vietnam is one of the most biodiverse countries in the tropics and one of the most ecologically devastated.

Vietnam is home to many primate species found nowhere else, including five of the most critically endangered. Certain monkeys fetch at least $200 apiece - a fortune by local standards - because of their supposed medicinal value. The grey-shanked douc langur, unknown to scientists until 1997, is one of those affected. Found only in Vietnam, its whole population may be fewer than 200.

The potential loss of primates is directly linked to the impending global-extinction crisis. Our own future is inextricably connected to these other life forms, and that is disquieting because this massive removal of life is also one of the most widely ignored issues of today's globe, despite much scientific evidence.

Wild animals provide foods, medicines, and a host of other raw materials for people everywhere. Intact forests are worth trillions of dollars for maintaining clean water and sequestering carbon. Ultimately, we are only likely to be successful in conserving species diversity if we incorporate this cause into our value systems - if we truly believe that other creatures have a right to exist and make a major contribution to our quality of life as well.

So what about the primates? Can the potential loss of animals like the four kinds of gorillas, the five kinds of chimpanzees, and the two orangutans stimulate our interest?

The living world is at least as much a part of who we are as our art, our music, our literature, our language, and even the sports teams we love. We need to start valuing it as much as we treasure the wonderful creations of our own species. Perhaps the plight of our closest-living relatives - the nonhuman primates - can help us move in this direction.

*Russell A. Mittermeier is president of Washington-based Conservation International (CI) and chairman of the Species Survival Commission's Primate Specialist Group. William R. Konstant is special projects director with CI, and co-deputy chairman of the Primate Specialist Group.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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