Researchers calls for urgent action to protect world’s primate populations

Friday, 15 June 2018

Primates in peril

Internationally-recognised experts on primate conservation, including researchers from Oxford Brookes University, have come together to highlight the urgent action needed to protect the world’s rapidly vanishing primate populations.

Non-human primates (lemurs, lorises, galagos, tarsiers, monkeys, and apes) are our closest biological relatives and offer unique insights into human evolution, biology, ecology, behavior, and the threat of emerging diseases. They are an essential component of tropical biodiversity, contributing to forest regeneration and ecosystem health, and play important roles in the livelihoods, cultures and religions of many societies.  

A co-authored article published today (Friday 15 June) in the scientific journal PeerJ highlights the significance of Brazil, Madagascar, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for global primate conservation.  

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN 2017) lists the existence of 439 nonhuman primate species. It reports that while wild primates occur in 90 countries, just four (Brazil-102 primate species, Madagascar-100 species, Indonesia-48 species and the DRC-36 species) — harbour 65% of all primate species.  

60% of these species are threatened with extinction, including chimpanzees, orangutans, and lowland gorillas. The two countries most at risk are Indonesia, with 83% of species threatened and 94% of populations declining, and Madagascar, with 93% of species threatened and 97% of populations declining.  

Calling for a global imperative to prevent this looming mass extinction event, the researchers examined the anthropogenic and societal pressures, such as habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation, political instability, corruption, human population expansion, food insecurity, and unsustainable commodity international trade driven by demands of consumer nations.  

People do not realise that in their daily lives, by consuming less and making more ecologically friendly consumer choices, such as reducing use of single use plastic and eating food grown locally, they can have direct impacts on tropical forests and the long-term sustainability of biodiversity.

Professor Anna Nekaris, Professor in Anthropology and Primate Conservation, Oxford Brookes University

Using information from the World Bank and United Nations databases, the group, from the UK, US, Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa, modelled spatial conflict between current primate distributions and projected agricultural expansion in these four primate-richest countries under a worst-case-scenario.  

The results indicated an expected primate range contraction of 78% for Brazil, 72% for Indonesia 62% for Madagascar and 32% for DRC by the end of the century.   

Professor Anna Nekaris, Professor in Anthropology and Primate Conservation at Oxford Brookes University took part in the work along with Professor Vincent Nijman, Professor in Anthropology, and Associate Lecturer in Anthropology and Primate Conservation, Dr Susan Cheyne.  

Professor Anna Nekaris said: “Many iconic species will be lost unless these countries, international organisations, consumer nations, and global citizens take immediate action to protect primate populations and their habitats.  

“People do not realise that in their daily lives, by consuming less and making more ecologically friendly consumer choices, such as reducing use of single use plastic and eating food grown locally, they can have direct impacts on tropical forests and the long-term sustainability of biodiversity."  

This action includes expanding protected areas, creating forested corridors for migration between otherwise isolated populations, incentivising the restoration of native forest communities, increasing food security and opportunities that are beneficial to people’s livelihoods, prioritising sustainability and clean energy, and requiring consumer nations and international corporations to pay into a green sustainability/conservation fund to offset over consumption and environmental damage.

Primate conservation  

Importantly anthropogenic pressures upon wild primates unfold in the context of expanding human populations with high levels of poverty and low levels of development. This and weak governance and corruption across these four countries may limit effective primate conservation planning.  

The researchers also examined landscape and local approaches to effective primate conservation policies and assessed the distribution of protected areas and primates in each country. They estimated that primates in Brazil and Madagascar have 38% of their range inside protected areas, 17% in Indonesia and 14% in DRC, suggesting that the great majority of primate populations remain vulnerable.  

Dr Susan Cheyne comments: “More protected areas are needed together with corridors along latitudinal and altitudinal gradients to reduce isolation, along with forest restoration projects that can be beneficial to people’s livelihoods.”  

Ensuring the protection of their natural capital to avert primate extinctions now and in the future in the face of local human and economic challenges and pressures from the forest-risk international trade is a key challenge for the four countries.  

“More effective law enforcement to stop illegal hunting, illegal forest destruction and illegal primate trade is key,” adds Professor Vincent Nijman.  

The group believe that long-term success can only be achieved by focusing local and global public awareness to reduce unsustainable demands on the environment;  increasing food security and opportunities that are beneficial to people’s livelihoods; attending to the plight of indigenous people, faced with high environmental destruction, who have depended for thousands of years on the forest for their livelihoods; and empowering segments of the population as citizen scientists to monitor and protect their primates.  

The four primate range states need to ensure that integrated, sustainable land-use planning for economic development includes the maintenance of biodiversity and intact, functional natural ecosystems.  

As part of the recognition for this global crisis, in 2000, Oxford Brookes University began the now award-winning MSc in Primate Conservation, which has produced more than 400 graduates, many of whom have played a major role in developing projects to protect primates and their ecosystems.  Find out more on the website.