It was only a few months ago that Conservation International saddened us all by reporting that nearly one in three species of primates are threatened with extinction.
Now, it turns out, that prediction may have been too rosy.
The first comprehensive review in five years of the world's 635 primate species found that nearly half of them are endangered, according to internationally accepted criteria.
"We've raised concerns for years about primates being in peril, but now we have solid data to show the situation is far more severe than we imagined," said Russell A. Mittermeier, president of Conservation International (CI) and the longtime chairman of the IUCN Species Survival Commission's Primate Specialist Group. "Tropical forest destruction has always been the main cause, but now it appears that hunting is just as serious a threat in some areas, even where the habitat is still quite intact. In many places, primates are quite literally being eaten to extinction."
Primates apes, monkeys, baboons and other species closer than most to humans on the evolutionary tree are endangered everywhere, primarily by forest destruction and slaughter for food. Nowhere are they more endangered than in Asia, where 70% of primates are classified on the IUCN Red List as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. Nine in 10 species in Vietnam and Cambodia are threatened.
"What is happening in Southeast Asia is terrifying," said Jean-Christophe Vié, Deputy Head of the IUCN Species Program. "To have a group of animals under such a high level of threat is, quite frankly, unlike anything we have recorded among any other group of species to date."
Even as new species of primates have been discovered 53 new species in the last eight years experts warn that small species with little public recognition are likely to go extinct while attention is focused on well-known larger species like great apes and gorillas. Eleven of Africa's 13 red colobus monkey species, for instance, are endangered; two may have already gone extinct, so rarely have they been seen in recent years.
There are some notable success stories, when it comes to the conservation of primates. Large forests in the Congo and Madagascar have been protected through innovative agreements, and two Brazilian species the black lilon tamarin and golden lion tamarin have recovered after decades of intensive captive breeding and conservation efforts.
Brace yourself for more bad wildlife news: The primate study is only one piece of a landmark assessment of the health of the world's mammals, set to be released by the IUCN in October.
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