Primates: Introduction and conservation

Here is an article that I have just written for a fantastic site called Nikela

Primates are found more or less on every area of land on the planet, however, if we remove Homo sapiens (Humans) from the picture, the distribution of primates becomes far more localised. The non-human primates are localised primarily to tropical/sub-tropical forests and woodland, although a few species have adapted to Savannah and montane habitats. The primate order can be split into two main groups, prosimians (i.e. lemurs, bushbabies and tarsiers) and the simians (i.e. monkeys and true apes such as Humans, the chimpanzee and gorilla).  Primates can further be split up into four main groups;

  1. New world monkeys
  2. Old world monkeys
  3. Apes
  4. Prosimians

The new world monkeys are found throughout the forest regions of South and central America and are easily distinguished from their old world cousins by their flat noses and prehensile (capable of grasping) tails. They include Tamarins, marmosets and spider monkeys. There are at least 53 species of new world monkey currently known to science. Over a third of all new world monkeys are in serious danger of becoming extinct as a direct result of the intensification of agriculture, logging, ranching and hydroelectric projects.  Hunting both for food and the pet trade (although not as intense as found in Africa and Asia) adds further pressure onto declining populations.

Silvery marmoset, a new world monkey. Photograph taken by the Durrell Wildlife Consevation Trust

Old world monkeys are found throughout Asia and Africa and unlike their new world cousins they have non-prehensile tails and downward facing nostrils as well as being generally larger. They include the proboscis monkey, snub nosed monkey, baboons and vervet monkey. There are at least 78 species of old world monkey currently known to science. Old world monkeys, like many other animal species are under threat as a result of competition with the most numerous primate species, the Homo sapiens. Competition for resources is the primary issue for old world monkeys as an ever increasing human population cuts down more forest and encroaches upon non human primate territory. Hunting of old world monkeys for the bushmeat trade is a serious issue and is having disastrous affects upon old world species, in particular those in west and central Africa such as the colobus monkey and guenons. The hunting is worsened by the encouraging of the activity by logging companies as a means to feed workers.

Credit: © The Field Museum, D. Quednau.

Apes are found in Africa and south east Asia and are easily distinguished from other primates by their lack of a tail and increased size (except for gibbons which are smaller than some monkeys). Apes are further split into two groups; Great apes (Humans, gorillas, orang-utans, chimpanzee etc) and lesser apes (gibbons).  The lesser apes are found in South East Asia along with the great ape Orang-utan with the rest of the great apes found in Africa.  There are 16 species of gibbon and all of them are threatened with extinction as a result of the loss of habitat to logging and agricultural expansion. All species of great ape are classified as endangered or worse as a direct result of deforestation and hunting.

Chimps, genetically humans’ closest relatives, live in family units and often use tools. Photograph by Michael Nichols

Prosimians are found on the island of Madagascar as well as being localised elsewhere in Africa and throughout Asia. They are a separate group from monkeys and apes and are considered the most ancient and primitive of the primates, indeed the name prosimians means before the monkeys. Compared to their other primate cousins they have larger eyes, elongated snouts and smaller brain cases. They include lemurs, bushbabies and tarsiers.  Like all primate species under threat, prosimians face the same problems of hunting and habitat loss with lemurs facing the unique problem of only being found on the island of Madagascar where 80% of the original forest cover has been removed or degraded to a great extent and are thus a great conservation priority.

Philippine Tarsier, a prosimian

So the question at hand is why should we conserve them? Of course this question can be asked of any species and it often is, but it has particular relevance to primates as they are by their very scientific classification related to humans.  The chimpanzee, a fellow great ape, shares 98.5% of our DNA and they are our closest living relative, with both humans and chimpanzees separating from a common ancestor just 6 million years ago (a relatively small time frame in evolutionary terms). The research potential for humans  in unlocking our own evolutionary past through the study of primates is unparalleled and essential to our understanding of our own species. Primates also play key roles in ecology as seed dispersers for many important tree/shrub species and account for 25%-40% (biomass) of all frugivorous (fruit eating) species found within tropical rainforests. Their ecological role is essential for the functioning of many key ecosystems which humans rely on both within and outside forested areas. Primates are also important as part of the natural heritage of many countries and form an important component of this planets biodiversity and the biodiversity of many individual countries. With an ever increasing focus on the importance of biodiversity both ecologically and economically, there is a great need to reverse the downward trend in species loss, especially for keystone species such as a the great apes whose loss has a significantly negative impact on both the ecology of their home ranges and the humans who rely upon their ecological functions. The very simple message everyone needs to understand is increased biodiversity equals increased benefits for humans in every area, from health to economy, with the reverse equalling great losses for humans.


About paulreynolds87

I am the Wildlife Care Manager at Ensessakotteh in Ethiopia. I completed my first degree in BSc (Hons) Wildlife Conservation with Zoo Biology and then moved on to my MSc in Habitat Management and Conservation (Ecology).
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6 Responses to Primates: Introduction and conservation

  1. Bob Venter says:

    Well written document Paul. Please allow me to share some more facts about the importance of conserving primates worldwide from a document I wrote to the South African Government dept of Environmental Affairs. Title: IMPORTANCE OF CHACMA BABOON (Papio ursinus), VERVET MONKEY (Cercopithecus aethiops), SAMANGO MONKEY (Cercopithecus mitis), LESSER BUSHBABY (Galago moholi) and THICK-TAILED BUSHBABY (Otolemur crassicaudatus) IN SOUTH AFRICAN ECO-SYSTEMS

    South African and other primates:
    • Primates are the most threatened to extinction than any other mammal species on the planet; – The IUCN*-2000 Report (Hilton-Taylor, 2000) reveals that the greatest change amongst mammals is the number of threatened primates. The total number of primate taxa currently recognised is 621, according to Conservation International. Of these, 52 are considered critically endangered; 92 are endangered; and 80 are vulnerable.
    Just 7 years later the IUCN-Primates in peril (26 October 2007) reveals that mankind’s closet relatives – the world’s apes, monkeys, lemurs and other primates – are under unprecedented threat from destruction of tropical forests, illegal wildlife trade and commercial bush-meat hunting, with 29% of all species in danger of going extinct. This report compiled by 60 experts from 21 countries warns that failure to respond to the mounting threats now exacerbated by climate change will bring the first primate extinctions in more than a century. Overall, 114 of the world’s 394 primate species are classified as threatened with extinction on the IUCN Red List.
    In the latest IUCN Report published in the Washington Post – October 7, 2008, only 12 months later, reported that the results on the status of wild mammals which were assessed by 1700 experts in 130 countries, that 79% of the world’s primates are facing extinction.
    At present primates are the most threatened to extinction than any other mammal species on the planet. (It is reported that this assessment took 5 years to complete). * IUCN – Red Data Listed Animals
    The ecological and economic consequences of losing large antelope, carnivores, predators and primate populations vary depending on the location and the ecological role of the species lost. Many species depend on the activities of primate species. Certain trees and plants produce large fruits and seeds, bulbs, tubes and roots apparently adapted for dispersal by primates and large antelopes. Defecation by primates and large mammals deposits these seeds and provides food for many birds, dung beetles and insects of varying degrees of specialization.

    These examples and others suggest that the loss of primates and large antelopes may precipitate extinctions of other taxa and the relationships among them, thus decreasing the diversity of both species and interactions. Conversely, protecting the large areas needed to conserve primates
    • Vervet monkeys have ecological and economic value.
    • Many species depend on the activities of primate species i.e.:
    i. certain trees and plants produce large fruits and seeds, bulbs, tubes and roots apparently adapted for dispersal by primates
    ii. population control by eating most eggs of birds, spiders, insects and reptiles
    iii. providing (dropping from trees) nutritional seeds, flowers and fruits to herbivores that don’t have the ability to obtain such
    iv. Most primates always drop food particles during foraging and in so doing, provide food and nutrients to other smaller and micro organism species
    • Defecation by primates deposits seeds and provides food for many birds, dung beetles and insects of varying degrees of specialization.
    • Primates form the basis of an enormous tourism industry, the loss of these species deprives regions of an important source of future revenue and foreign exchange.
    • Because primates are closely related to us, we find it easier to identify and sympathize with similar species because they behave in familiar ways. Arguably, the most profound cost of losing these species’ is the toll that it takes on our ability to relate to nature.
    • Primates are “Mobile links” that provide critical ecosystem services and increase ecosystem resilience by connecting habitats and ecosystems.
    • Primates pollinating and dispersing seed are genetic links that carry genetic material from an individual plant to another plant or to a habitat suitable for regeneration.
    • Plant animal mutualisms such as pollination and seed dispersal link plant productivity and ecosystem functioning, and maintain gene flow in plant populations.
    •Primates, insects and particularly bees, are the major pollinators of wild and crop plants worldwide.
    • Most primate species also contribute disproportionately to dispersal of bulbs and roots.
    • Plant-Primate mutualisms form webs or networks that contribute to the maintenance of biodiversity.
    • Dispersing seeds is among the most important functions of mobile links. Most primates are amongst the main seed vectors for flowering plants, particularly woody species.
    • In addition to predating and consuming insects on flowers and flowers, primates are also considered a major contributor to flower pollination in the cultivated and wild floral domain.
    • Species that provide natural pest control range from bacteria and viruses to invertebrate and vertebrate predators i.e., Vervet monkeys and other primates feeding on insects, their eggs and larvae.
    • Most primates’ control of insect herbivores and consequent reductions in plant damage can have important economic value.
    • The medicinal plants used by primates (being so closely related to humans) were “copied” by indigenous communities worldwide. These plant species are used by traditional, indigenous communities worldwide.

    In Conclusion.
    Ecosystems and their constituent species provide an endless stream of products, functions, and services that keep our world running and make our existence possible. To many, even the thought of putting a price tag on services like photosynthesis, purification of water, and pollination of food crops may seem like hubris, as these are truly priceless services without which not only humans, but most of life would perish.

    In this uncontrollable urge to develop, humans are merely assuring short-term progress for their own species at the cost of the right to live for all other earthly living creatures. The realisation of this greedy attitude is more often than not too late to prevent the extinction of plants, animals, reptiles, birds, rivers and wetlands.
    Only with very strict protection, conservation and precautionary protocol it may be possible to prevent that only records of such species would be in photographs, memories and stuffed wildlife species in museums.

  2. Fantastic report you put together there Bob! Thank you for posting it was an interesting and informative read!

  3. Rodger Lee says:

    Well written and presented report thank you for allowing me to read it. Very informative it makes to realise that conservation of all animal species it very important.

    Rodger Lee
    Wild Photos

  4. I love the pictures and excellent information, Paul! Keep up the good work! I am doing an endangered species spotlight series on my blog and would love to use some of this information for my primate focus.

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