Why are so many primate species endangered?

Kate Pirie By Kate Pirie
21 Feb 2017
Primates - Endangered - Lemur hdr.jpg

Gibbons, lemurs, orangutans, chimpanzees, and gorillas all are endangered primate species, in fact almost all primates are now threatened and around 300 species face extinction in the next 30 years.

A recent study has warned that more than half of the world’s primate species are under threat of extinction, a very concerning prospect something that would be a major extinction event.

Humans and their encroachment is to blame – loss of habitat (burning forests for charcoal and agriculture), the bushmeat trade and pet trade have made devastating inroads into the demise of our closest relatives.

These species are the most like us in terms of DNA, most fascinating, delightful, intriguing and ‘human’ in many ways (without anthropomorphising them). There is so much we can learn from them, and we should do everything we can to ensure their future survival.

But unfortunately, even if all the current threats to primates were removed, some species would have difficulty regenerating their populations due to such small numbers left in tiny forest pockets.

Primate species are spread across 90 countries over the world, but two-thirds of the world’s populations live in just four countries that are facing huge levels of extinctions. In Madagascar, the only place in the world (except for the Comoros Islands) where lemurs are found, 87% of primate species face extinction.

  • Primates - Endangered - Sifaka Lemur.jpg

This includes the simply beautiful silky sifaka (Propithecus candidus), the googly eyed aye aye, the black lemur, Madame Berthes mouse lemur and the Indri Indri – the largest lemur. The latter cannot survive outside the wild, no Indri has survived in captivity, and in fact much the same applies for the mountain gorillas of the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. (The ones kept in zoos tend to be the western lowland gorilla).

Lemurs are prosimians who get their name from the Latin meaning ‘“spirits of the night”. Many are indeed nocturnal but others, like the monogamy-practising Indri Indri, the Sifaka and the ring-tailed lemurs with their jaunty swagger, are actually diurnal.

There are five families of lemurs, the aye aye, Indri, Sportive, Cheirogaleidae and the Lemuridae. The aye aye is the only species in its phylogenetic family (though this is under much debate) and is rarely seen. However there are some wonderful local guides in a select few areas that know of some individuals and have taken visitors to see them.

Most lemurs live on the island of Madagascar though there are some on the Comoros Islands too (it is believed that they were probably bought there from Madagascar) and all are vulnerable, and enchanting!

On my last visit to southern Madagascar, I found a ringtail lemur tail and rear end sticking out of a very large pot – the lemur had snuck in through the back door of a local restaurant and was helping himself to lunch whilst the chef took his own break! The lemur escaped unharmed – with a full belly, and I got some interesting photos.

  • Primates - Endangered - Ring tailed lemur.jpg

Ringtails are probably the internationally most well-known lemur and live in the drier desert areas to the central and southern parts of the island. Indris live in Andasibe and Réserve Spéciale d’Anjanaharibe-Sud.

Seeing lemurs in the forests in Madagascar – be it spiny forests on the desert to leaping from sharp tsingy to the next in the Tsingy de Behamara and then to the forests on the eastern side of the country is one of the most sought-after ‘wildlife ticks’ on any wildlife enthusiasts check list. I highly recommend that one visits several areas of differing habitat so that you get a chance to see as many species as possible.

Most lemurs have beautiful colourings and hair colour – long tails (longer than the body) and the nocturnal ones have large eyes for hunting at night. They have pseudo-opposing thumbs and most live in the trees, though some do prefer walking or jumping (which looks much like skipping) along the ground.

One abiding memory that everyone who travels to Madagascar comes away with, is the sound of the Indri Indri in Andasibe. Lemurs vocalise between family members and they call first thing in the morning. It is piercing, a screech-cross-roar with a distinctive tone, song and configuration. They can also hoot or hum.

Separated families will respond and answer each other across the forest. These communications set boundaries between families and also help to notify of changes to breeding mates. The sounds can carry around four kilometres! Not bad for a lemur that looks like a black and white furry teddy bear!

So what can be done to help the primate species? This is a very complex question and the solution must solve many issues. We need to tackle several issues; the bushmeat trade, the pet trade, deforestation and other human encroachments.

One thing that can be done is that if you wish to see primates in the wild, you should ensure that you travel responsibly and with a company that contributes to conservation rather than damaging local primate populations. Done correctly, travel can be sustainable and also can help lift local communities out of poverty, which reduces the need for poaching endangered species.

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Posted by: Kate Pirie

Posted on: 22nd February 2017

Read more: Posts about Africa

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