The global decline of primates.
But subsistence hunting is overshadowed in many areas by unregulated commercial hunting. In much of central Africa, a deadly synergism between market hunters and the trade in tropical hardwoods is pushing primate and other wildlife populations into rapid decline. Selective logging practices are not themselves a major problem for most primates. They may even benefit certain species like gorillas, which prefer foods found in secondary forest patches. Logging roads, however, are a different story. By providing access to formerly isolated forests, the roads offer a short-term bonanza for hunters who pursue wild game to supply the growing trade in "bush meat." The numbers of primates, antelope, forest hogs, civets (a cat-like animal), and other creatures killed for bush meat in central Africa are staggering. In Gabon, a country of about 1.2 million people, some 8 million pounds of bushmeat are consumed annually, half of it in urban areas. Primates are a large component of this total - in neighboring Equatorial Guinea they constitute up to 25 percent of the bushmeat marketed. In many areas, the trade in bushmeat is now the main source of income for rural residents.
The complicity of logging operations in the bushmeat trade is blatant and widespread. In one study in the Republic of Congo (not the former Zaire, but the country to the west of it), researchers found that logging company employees supplemented their income by supplying local hunters with weapons, ammunition, and transport in exchange for a share of the meat. According to some experts, bushmeat hunting in central Africa may even outrank habitat loss as a threat to primates and many other forest animals.
Overhunting damages more than just the primate populations themselves. Hunters tend to target the big primates - and big primates usually have big ecological roles. The collapse of their populations may trigger a cascade of ecological effects throughout an entire natural community. In the American tropics, for instance, spider and wooly monkeys consume large quantities of wild fruit while foraging over wide areas of forest. Many tree species rely heavily on these monkeys to disperse their seeds. When the monkeys are hunted out of a forest, some types of trees may not be able to "sow" their seeds properly. If no more seeds land in suitable sites, then the next generation of those tree species is in trouble - and so is the next generation of the birds, mammals, insects, fungi, and various other creatures that the trees support.
Some trees may depend entirely on this dispersal mechanism for survival. In central Africa, for instance, lowland gorillas feed on the fruits of the moabi tree. (So do the people, and other parts of the tree are valuable too: the seed oil is used for cooking, the bark for medicine, and the lustrous wood for furniture.) Moabi seeds are huge - as are the seeds of certain other central African trees. But Melissa Remis, an anthropologist who has studied the gorilla, says the gorilla's guts can accommodate seeds up to 12 centimeters long. "If it weren't for them and for elephants," she says, "trees like moabi might not exist."
Some hunters are pursuing primates not for bush meat, but for the pet trade. Most nations have enacted laws to restrict or ban the trade in wild primates, and most countries that have wild primate populations are party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES), which essentially bans international trade in endangered species. But the regulations are unevenly enforced, and illegal trade continues within and between many countries, especially in Asia. As recently as 1995, vendors in the Pramuka market in Jakarta, Indonesia were offering dozens of live primates for sale, and a researcher visiting the market was told that live orangutans could be purchased nearby. Orangutans and the other apes - gibbons, chimps, and gorillas are especially charismatic; they are so much like us that there is a virtually insatiable demand for them. Wild-caught infant apes are continually being sought by unscrupulous carnivals, by restaurants and bars to entertain their customers, and by people who just think they would make great pets.
One of the most egregious episodes of ape-smuggling occurred in Taiwan during the late 1980s, when a popular Taiwanese television show featured a live orangutan as a main character. The show led many viewers to want young orangutans as pets, and ape smugglers, with little to fear from Taiwan's poorly enforced wildlife protection laws, were happy to oblige. As many as 1,000 orangutans may have illegally entered the country, and were subsequently sold through newspaper advertisements. That's the equivalent of 3 to 5 percent of the entire wild orangutan population. But the full toll was certainly far higher, since the capture of an infant primate invariably involves killing its mother, and many captured infants would have died in transit. By the early 1990s, according to a recent World Wide Fund for Nature report, "the capital of Taiwan, Taipei, was reputed to have more orangutans per square kilometer than the species' natural habitat." Most of these orangutans have since been abandoned by their owners because they have matured and become unmanageable. The twice-orphaned orangs are probably destined to spend the rest of their lives in facilities designed to care for apes in this predicament. They have not learned the skills necessary for life in the wild and many now carry human diseases, so it is unlikely that they could ever be returned to their forest homeland.
Protect the Monkey and You Protect the Forest
There are a few bright spots in our relationship with our fellow primates. Biomedical research, for example, has made a great deal of progress in reducing its impact on wild primates. Each year, some 40,000 monkeys and apes are used in this kind of research; we owe a great debt to these laboratory primates, since many important medical studies would have been simply impossible without them. The South American owl monkey, for instance, has been one of the most valuable animal models for malaria research. And because the owl monkey has such large eyes - it's one of the world's few fully nocturnal primates - it has also been important for research on eye diseases such as glaucoma.
Most biomedical research is done in the industrialized countries, and the labs have long been fed by an extensive international trade in wild-caught primates. (The United States, Britain, and Japan are the leading primate importers and virtually all of their imports are now for research.) The biomedical trade in wild primates reached its peak during the 1950s and 1960s, when it swallowed up hundreds of thousands of animals. The total for chimpanzees alone is believed to be somewhere between 40,000 and 90,000, from the late 1960s to the late 1980s. By way of comparison, the total wild chimp population is presently thought to be 200,000 at most, and possibly only half that.
But beginning with Latin American nations in the 1970s, most primate-source countries have clamped down on the export of wild-caught primates, and researchers have turned increasingly to captive-bred animals. The establishment of CITES in 1973 also helped slow the trade; the number of monkeys imported into the United States, for instance, declined from 113,714 in 1968 to 13,148 in 1983. By the early 1990s, between 50 and 80 percent of the remaining trade was being supplied by only two countries, Indonesia and the Philippines. In 1994, these countries also banned exports. That leaves only a handful of countries, such as Guyana, still exporting wild-caught primates.
Another form of progress involves primates' cultural importance. In some cases, we may be able to forge a healthier relationship with our closest relatives by looking anew at traditional attitudes in cultures that developed alongside primates. In some societies, primates are granted sacred status or considered taboo to hunt or eat. In such cultures, the idea of primate bush meat would be just about as appalling as cannibalism. Throughout south and east Asia, for example, temples and sacred forest groves provide refuge for langurs and macaques, who are viewed as living emblems of the resident gods or spirits. In Africa, some villages protect pygmy chimpanzees (also called "bonobos") and refuse to hunt them, holding them to be too much like humans. Villagers in parts of Java maintain a taboo against hunting gibbons for the same reason. And in Madagascar, there are taboos against hunting certain species of lemur.
Sacred status alone, however, may not always be enough to guarantee a species' survival. In India, hanuman langurs are revered by devout Hindus - indeed, the species takes its name from the Hindu monkey god Hanuman, dedicated servant of the mythical King Rama. The langurs are the most common monkeys in India, and in many towns, their presence has not simply been tolerated - it has been encouraged. Yet increasingly intensive land use is gradually squeezing the langurs out of the forests, fallow lands, and other habitats they need. And the langurs' popularity often fades quickly when they turn to raiding crops after losing their wild food sources. Despite their sacred status, India's hanuman langurs are in long-term decline. Without effective habitat conservation, even highly esteemed species like the langurs will be gradually reduced to a collection of isolated populations on temple grounds and little patches of forest. Without room to forage, they will have to rely on people for food; essentially they will become zoo animals.
But it doesn't have to turn out that way. In a sense, primates can be their own best friends when it comes to conserving their habitat. Conservationists have found that primates make excellent "flagship" species for ecosystems. They can be used to attract public attention and generate support for natural areas protection - all of the less conspicuous plants and animals in the community can benefit from their charisma as well. In Brazil, for instance, endangered primates have helped catalyze efforts to save the few remaining areas of Atlantic rainforest. Brazilian scientists' efforts to conserve the golden lion tamarin - a project now nearly three decades old - is one of the longest-running primate conservation programs in the world. It's also one of the most successful, since most remaining areas of healthy forest within the species' range now contain resident lion tamarins. And since more tamarin habitat is needed, the monkey is now being used to focus public attention on the importance of restoration ecology.
Including Primates in the Social Contract
It would be easy to typecast poor rural people as the villains in the tragedy of primate loss, because of their role in overhunting and converting habitat. But there is growing evidence that the same people, given the fight conditions, can make effective primate conservationists. In the Central American nation of Belize, for instance, a town called Bermudian Landing has mobilized to protect native black howler monkeys. Following discussions with researchers studying the monkeys during the mid-1980s, about a dozen community members - mostly poor farmers - donated small areas of land bordering a nearby river as a reserve for the howlers. Eventually, nearly a hundred other landowners followed their lead, and the sanctuary expanded. The howlers make for good neighbors because they feed mostly on leaves and do not bother the farmers' crops. The reserve has also produced economic benefits for the community, since tourists and Belizean schoolchildren now visit to view the monkeys. The reserve's howler population has grown from 800 to 2,400 - enough to allow some monkeys to be moved to other parts of the country, where the species had disappeared.
Community-oriented primate conservation is also keeping hopes alive for primates in far more difficult conditions. The rarest of all great apes are Africa's famed mountain gorillas, which live high on the cloud-forest slopes of the Virunga volcanoes, an area shared by Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (the former Zaire). Between 1960 and 1981 the Virunga gorilla population declined steadily from 450 to a mere 250, but at that point the fide began to turn. International conservation organizations joined forces with the Rwandan government to launch the Mountain Gorilla Conservation Project. A public education program helped Rwandans understand the uniqueness of gorillas and the value of their forest habitat for water catchment. Certain groups of gorillas were habituated to the presence of humans, and gorilla ecotourism soon began earning Rwanda as much as $10 million annually. In addition, well-trained and equipped Rwandan park guards began effective anti-poaching patrols. By the late 1980s the Virunga population had rebounded to nearly 320. Just as important, says the eminent zoologist George Schaller, is the fact that "the people of Rwanda became proud of their apes. The gorillas became part of Rwanda's identity in the world, a part of the nation's vision of itself."
Rwandans' social pact with their gorillas seems to have weathered even the recent civil war. Tutsi rebels commandeered the gorillas' habitat in 1991. By the time full-scale war erupted in 1994, all expatriate conservationists had been evacuated, and military forces were operating throughout the gorillas' mountain home. Yet despite the horrific human violence, Rwanda's gorillas emerged virtually unscathed. Only two are known to have died in Rwanda as a result of the fighting. The first, a silverback male named Mrithi, was shot in 1992 by soldiers who mistook him for the enemy. The second, a male named Mkono, was killed by a land mine in 1994.
What kept gorilla deaths to a minimum was the remarkable dedication and concern of many Rwandans for the gorillas' welfare throughout those terrible days. Even though they had pledged to topple the Hutu regime, rebel leaders promised to honor the anti-poaching laws. Park guards continued to patrol without pay, risking their lives to continue monitoring the gorillas. After the war, as park administrators and researchers gradually returned to find their offices ransacked and looted, they pledged to rebuild and continue their conservation work. Nsengiyumva Barakabuye, one of those officials, put it this way: "Gorillas are our only renewable resource. Some have said, 'Give the park to returning refugees!' But we will never do that. The gorillas are too valuable."
Although the courage of the Rwandan park staff speaks volumes about what conservation can accomplish, time is running out for many primates and even the mountain gorilla is far from secure. At the same time they were weathering the chaos in Rwanda, the gorillas were falling to poachers' spears and snares just across the border in Uganda and what was then Zaire, where eight gorillas died during a seven-month period in 1995. Last May, four more were reported killed there, when they were caught in a crossfire between the army of Laurent Kabila, who became the country's new president, and an expatriate force of dissident Rwandan Hutus.
Making a Global Commitment
The Mountain Gorilla Conservation Project shows how much can be achieved under even the grimmest conditions. But as with other types of environmental work, primate conservation efforts will have to be scaled up drastically if we are to turn the global trends around. Fortunately, we already have an agenda to point us forward. The IUCN's Primate Specialist Group and other organizations have compiled a set of Conservation Action Plans that identify the priorities. The first challenge is to better manage existing protected areas that shelter primates - to turn "paper parks" into on-the-ground realities. That will mean giving rangers, naturalist guides, and other park personnel the training and resources they need to do their jobs; it will also mean finding ways to let the parks benefit the people who live around - and sometimes within - park boundaries. In some cases, park systems may need to be expanded to cover habitats or species that are not yet protected, such as Vietnam's Tonkin snub-nosed monkey.
To function effectively, the parks will need to be carefully integrated into both the landscapes and the societies in which they are situated. Many studies have also shown that over the long term, parks cannot be managed successfully as isolated units in a sea of intensively modified landscape. Instead, natural areas need to be organized into regional networks that allow for large-scale ecological processes, such as migrations and range shifts in response to environmental change. And ultimately, if we are to give other primates the space they need, we will have to use less space ourselves - or at least, use it less intensively. Either way, the long term success of the parks will depend on our success in stabilizing our own population. We can no longer afford to think of natural areas conservation and family planning as separate issues.
Other social challenges include the need to expand environmental education efforts, like Rwanda's, which emphasize the values of both the primates themselves and their habitats. A related challenge is to increase the economic benefits that living wild primates bring to local residents, through such means as carefully designed ecotourism programs. Finally, conservation will also require additional field research on primates - particularly by scientistssts from the primates' home countries - to provide a more solid basis for field management and policy decisions.
To be sure, this is an ambitious agenda, but the price tag may still be fairly modest, in comparison with other types of development projects. For example, the IUCN Lemur Specialist Group has estimated that all conservation activities recommended for Madagascar's primates between 1993 and 1999 would cost just over $7 million, or about $1.2 million per year. This sum is puny by the standards of the major lending agencies - World Bank projects, for example, typically run in the tens of millions at a minimum. Yet lemur conservation would yield enormous benefits, since it would help insure the health of entire ecosystems. Even so, the cost is still too great a burden for a lower-income country like Madagascar to shoulder alone. Primate conservation must remain a global cause, one that will continue to require the support of wealthy societies like the United States, Japan, and the members of the European Community.
In the end, the struggle to save primates is no different from the struggle to conserve any other aspect of the planet's biological wealth. But what primates do better than other kinds of wildlife is to capture and return our gaze in kind, communicating the past, present, and future bonds we share with all life on earth. George Schaller, renowned for his many studies of large mammals (including gorillas), explains that this bond is not purely a matter of science. "No one who looks into a gorilla's eyes - intelligent, gentle, vulnerable - can remain unchanged," he writes, "for the gap between ape and human vanishes; we know that the gorilla still lives within us." We humans, the most adaptable of primates, might be able to survive in a world with no room for our closest relatives, but we would find it a far poorer and lonelier place.
RELATED ARTICLE: A STORY FROM SARAWAK
Back in 1981, WWF-Malaysia sent me to Sarawak to help the Forest Department there with its orangutan conservation work. This work took me deep into the forest, near the Kalimantan border, and involved many a night in Iban longhouses. Once, when I was in the Batang Ai area, long before today's Batang Ai National Park was established, a Tuai Rumah told me the following story.
"In my grandfather's time, a man died and the people laid him out in the bilek for burial the next day. But early on the following morning, when his son entered the bilek, his father's body had gone. Instead, there was a maias (orangutan) standing there, and the maias said to the man, 'I am your father. I am not dead, but because I have turned into a maias, I can no longer live in the longhouse. I must go and live in the forest. But because I am your father and I am joining the other maias, we must have a bond between people and maias.'
"So saying, the maias gave the man a ring and said, 'Keep this ring for eight generations. So long as you and your descendants have the ring, the people of the Batang Ai must regard all maias as their family. Do not harm us and We will know that you are our friends, and good fortune shall be yours.'
"With that, the maias left the longhouse and disappeared into the forest. His son kept the ring carefully and right now it is in the hands of his son's family, although they moved to the new settlement along the Sungai Skrang some years ago.
"Because this happened, we the Iban people of the Batang Ai do not hunt or kill any maias and that is why you can see many of them in our area. They even make their nests where we can see them from our longhouses. We have six more generations to go of this peace between us and our maias neighbours. After that, who knows? I shall not be here."
I have often thought about this tale. And I have often thought about how there are many orangutans in the Batang Ai, yet almost none in similar, nearby areas. I even saw orangutan nests in the tops of rubber trees near the longhouse where the man told me his story. Is it true? I only tell you what I heard. You can decide for yourself what you think is true in your world. But I do know that a world with this story is a better place for maias than a world without it.
Dato Mikaail Kavanagh, Executive Director of WWF-Malaysia, as quoted in Duniaku, September 1996 (a publication of WWF-Malaysia)
RELATED ARTICLE: CITINGS
Under such great human population pressure, it is extremely unlikely that the Chimpanzees will long survive in nature; extinction is their almost certain fate. They most likely will not disappear because of deliberate hunting by human beings, but...because of destruction of the ecosystem of which they are living components.... Most sensitive human beings will care, will mourn the loss. But only a relative few will realize that the coming disappearance of this prominent endangered species is not just a single tragedy but symptomatic of a planetary catastrophe that is bearing down on all of us. For along with the chimp will go the other living elements of the chimp's ecosystem - components all of Earth's crucial life-support systems.
Paul and Anne Ehrlich in Extinction
John Tuxill is a staff researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and the coauthor, with Gary Paul Nabhan, of Useful Plants and Protected Areas: A Guide to In Situ Conservation, to be published by Chapman and Hall in 1998.