Sixty Percent of the World’s Primates Are Threatened with Extinction

A study authored by 31 leading experts details all the ways we’re putting our closest relatives at risk.

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Jan 18 2017, 7:00pm

The golden snub-nosed monkey is endangered. Image: pelican/Flickr

Primates are humans' closest relatives, and according to a new study, we're systematically wiping them off the face of the planet.

The vast study, authored by 31 leading experts in primates and conservation, found that 60 percent of all non-human primate species are threatened with extinction due to destructive human activities. The most significant impact is habitat destruction caused by tearing down forests to expand farm fields, logging, and hunting. The researchers found that, without action to find more sustainable solutions, we're at risk of losing more than half of our closest relatives within decades.

"It is daunting and, if you ask me, it's hard to imagine we're not going to witness the extinction of many taxa in the next 10 to 20 years," said Eduardo Fernandez-Duque, an anthropologist at Yale University and one of the co-authors of the study, which was published Wednesday in Science Advances. "It's going to happen."

Non-human primates play an important role in their local ecosystems, and in allowing for important research about human evolution, biology, and health. The pressures on primate conservation have been well-documented, but this study marks the first time that the entire global impact has been measured and evaluated. It takes a holistic look at the numerous problems facing primate conservation, but identifies that there's no single, simple solution.

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There are more than 500 primate species living across 90 countries, which means there are different problems in each region. Rubber tree plantations have driven the decline of the Northern white-cheeked crested gibbon in southwest China, while palm oil farming has been a bigger threat to Sumatran and Bornean orangutan. Fernandez-Duque told me there are many issues intertwined: a growing global population demands more food to feed everyone, which leads to deforestation to expand farmers' fields. Everything from access to reproductive health care to the choices about what furniture we buy can impact these conservation efforts.

"All things considered, I have it easy in Argentina [where I work], I don't have starving people at the borders of the national park," Fernandez-Duque said. "Unless we address people's needs, we won't be able to address primate needs."

But it's not hopeless. The study outlines a number of strategies to help protect our primate cousins before they disappear, from expanded protected conservation areas to finding more sustainable farming practices that don't require clear-cutting an entire forest. Fernandez-Duque told me it's not just a government issue, either. Individuals can make an impact by being more thoughtful about their purchases, whether it be avoiding products with palm oil in them, or doing a bit more research to make sure furniture isn't made using tropical wood.

"Put you money where it can help," Fernandez-Duque said. "And connect with nature. I really believe in the power of getting people to feel connected to these things."

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