Man's Closest Relatives Endangered

photo from Conservation International

Primates on a Slippery Slope
August 5, 2008 article (abbreviated)
By Lisa Bowen
Deforestation, Hunting Plague Humans' Closest Relatives
Not too many conservationists can claim being threatened by a drunk policeman armed with a machine gun as a work experience. For primatologist Ben Rawson, little in his life – and that of his colleagues – is ordinary.
Rawson, 36, is among dozens of scientists on several continents who provided data for the first comprehensive review in five years of the world’s 634 kinds of primates. The results are staggering: almost 50 percent of all monkeys, lemurs, apes and other primates are in danger of becoming extinct.
Field scientists who gather such data know how tough this kind of work can be. Rawson recalls his brush with a policeman involved in the illegal wildlife trade in Cambodia: "I was in the local village at night looking for guides to take to the field the next day," he says. "A guy rolled up on his motorbike and confronted us on the street. He started waving his machine gun around, with special emphasis on me."
In Southeast Asia, many ethnic groups have a culture of hunting wildlife. According to Rawson, this hadn’t been a problem until the proliferation of guns in the region from various conflicts. Today, hunting is a serious threat to many species.
Habitat destruction is another direct cause for loss of primates worldwide, particularly from burning and clearing tropical forests. Not only does this destroy primate habitat, it also emits 20 percent of global greenhouse gases fueling climate change. Rawson sees climate change as an indirect, yet genuine threat to primates. He cites a recent report that predicts a one-meter sea level rise that would affect six million people, mostly in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. "Massive numbers of people will be migrating into forested areas further north, and clearing those forests for agriculture," he points out.
Working for the past six years in Cambodia and Vietnam, where approximately 90 percent of the primates are at risk of extinction, Rawson has witnessed the crisis unfold. "Pretty much every time you go to the field you can see the problem," he says. "You see it with the creeping clearance of forests for agriculture. You see it in the dismembered remains of wildlife in the markets."
Despite the challenges, Rawson is cautiously optimistic. "The discovery of a new population, the protection of a key area; these are the things that give you hope," he explains. "However, realistically, all species of primates in Cambodia and Vietnam are on a slippery slope with populations still declining, often at drastic rates." ......
"We all need to understand how our behavior impacts the world around us," Rawson says. Being a smart consumer can have a direct effect. For example, when you buy timber products such as outdoor furniture, be sure they are certified as legally harvested. That will reduce the amount of illegally harvested timber, which means a reduction in habitat loss for primates."
Learn more at Conservation International