Andrea Patricia Birkby. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.
Nonhuman primates offer tremendous value for many different reasons. Being humankind’s closest living relatives, they can teach us a great deal about ourselves in terms of understanding our own cognitive abilities including behavior, health, language and development, and, importantly, evolution. They also play a significant role in habitat biodiversity, which is of tremendous importance to overall health of the world’s fragile ecosystem. In terms of biological diversity, primates are both seed dispersers and seed predators, occupying specific niches throughout tropical rain forests. Some of the world’s richest and most diverse ecosystems also have the largest and most diverse primate populations.
Many primates live in tropical, developing countries and compete with humans for valuable resources, such as food and habitat. In various parts of the world, they are exploited for consumption either directly as food or indirectly for medicinal value and also commercial trade. Primates that raid crops, like other animals around the world, are sometimes shot as pests or poisoned. Their forest habitat is being logged and cleared at an alarming rate by commercial loggers and subsistence farmers for land use, such as plantations for cash crops and even firewood. Finally, since endangered primates live in primary rain forests, which often have the most valuable wood, their conservation is directly tied to the protection of their habitats.
Within the animal kingdom is the order of primates, a group comprising more than 230 different genera. Groupings within the order are either classified into prosimians (smaller bodied and often nocturnal insectivores, with claws instead of nails) and anthropoids (larger bodied, diurnal, often frugivorous, with female reproductive cycles similar to that found in humans) or strepsirrhines or haplorrhines. For example, lorises and lemurs are considered prosimians and strepsirrhines, whereas all monkeys and apes are anthropoids and haplorrhines. Perhaps the most unique primate is the only one that shares characteristics with prosimians and anthropoids and maintains characteristics unique to itself—the tarsier. It has been the subject of controversy for some time and because of its unique combination of traits looks to remain that way.
Nearly each species found within this distinct order possesses physical qualities that separate them from other mammals and other animals. Primates, including humans, share a variety of characteristics not necessarily unique in and of themselves. However, it is the combination of these traits that make them unique. Some of the specific traits that certain primates have include a complex stomach (sometimes sacculated in colobines species), flexible shoulder girdle (to allow for the greatest range in motion between arms and shoulders), toilet claw (used for extraction of food), dental comb (to scrape bark and gum off trees), prehensile tail with a skinlike undersurface (often used as another limb as well as for balance), postorbital bar (how the eyes are situated in the skull), ischial callosities (sitting pads found on monkeys but greatly reduced in gibbons and siamangs), and cheek pads (food storage).
General traits include lengthy gestation, grasping hands and feet with an opposable thumb, a generalized skeleton, stereoscopic and binocular vision, and a large brain. In particular, the lengthy gestation makes primates particularly vulnerable to extinction. Apes on average reproduce only every 5 to 9 years in the wild (depending on the species). The grasping hand and opposable thumb allow for dexterity and manipulation of objects other animals are not capable of. The thumb has been perhaps one of our greatest evolutionary biological developments, as it allows for a specialized manipulation of objects and tools, which ultimately aids in our survival. Of all of our fingers (and toes), it is the thumb that allows for the greatest range of object manipulation. A generalized skeleton allows the primate to move through its environment in a variety of ways while also allowing an existence in a variety of habitats. Rather than only flying through the air to get from one point to another or slithering from Point A to Point B, a primate can walk, run, jump, climb, swing, brachiate, hop, leap— to move from place to place. Binocular and stereoscopic vision give the primate an ability to have overlapping fields of sight which provide a three-dimensional “(3-D)” view as a result of the eyes being on the front of the face rather than at the sides of the head. This allows for a depth in vision not all animals are afforded. The shape (and relative size) of the brain is similar between humans and non-human primates. The great apes have the most similar brain in structure and size compared to humans, with lesser apes closely behind. Monkeys have a similar brain structure but notably smaller.
Finally, the brain, nature’s most dangerous product (as some would say) happens to be relatively large in all primates. Big brainedness has many benefits not the least of which is an increased cognitive ability often associated with survival.
Intelligence and Cognition
Primate intelligence is a much studied area. Primates are able to demonstrate intelligence in numerous ways including via language, culture, tool use and innovation, and, perhaps most important, survival.
For example, each great ape species has several members that live in captivity and are capable of language in various capacities. Kanzi, a bonobo, uses a symbolic communication board called the lexigram and is capable of understanding spoken language. Koko (perhaps the most famous signing gorilla) has a vocabulary of over 1,000 signs, and she understands approximately 2,000 words of spoken English. There are also examples from the orangutan and chimpanzee families.
Another example of primate intelligence is found in cultural behavior. Jane Goodall’s (1990) long-term field research has revealed that chimpanzees not only use tools but also make them. Chimpanzee tool use occurs for a variety of reasons including extraction of ants and termites, extraction of certain nuts with anvil and hammer types of tools, and even for symbolic gestures, such as bluff charges to intimidate rivals.
Primate self-medication is another area demonstrating cognitive abilities among primates. Many use plants to treat a variety of parasitic infections. Chimpanzee expert Toshisada Nishida’s studies have shown that out of nearly 200 native plant species eaten by Mahale Mountain chimpanzees, one fourth are used by natives to treat gastrointestinal disorders or parasite disease. In addition, monkeys and prosimians have been seen using millipede and ants as appropriate material for an anointment as protection from insects.
Primate behavior is centered around group living in most cases. In fact, all but one species of Primates is considered social. The orangutan is semisolitary. This is believed to be because their primary food source, fruit, is only found sporadically; therefore, orangutans cannot afford to be social. While many primates eat fruit, the orangutan is a super-specialist of fruit and relies on it for over 90% of its diet.
Most primates live in groups from just several members (as in the case of monogamous species, such as gibbons) to large groups, numbering into the hundreds— hamadryas baboons live in groups as large as 700, for example; that, however, is extremely rare. Most primates live in smaller groups of less than 100 members. They are most often classified as diurnal (day living) or nocturnal, though some forms of lemurs are more crepuscular.
Nonhuman primates like their human relatives are heavily dependent on learned behavior. They learn what they need for survival from their mothers and also other group members. Alloparenting (care of infant by a group member not necessarily related to the individual but often is) is an important part of primate living, and thereby, only primates living in groups benefit from this behavior while raising their offspring. This has serious implications for long-term survival and conservation for different species of primates.
Many perform a variety of locomotion (with their generalized skeletons) and can brachiate through trees as well as walk quadrupedally on the ground and in the branches. Some even walk bipedally (though rare). The bonobo is our most adapted primate for this type of specialized locomotion.
Primates eat an array of food especially fruit, leaves, other plant material, insects, and even meat. Some are highly specialized, such as the orangutan and gorilla, while others such as certain types of baboons are considered more omnivorous (like humans). Perhaps one of the most “vegetarian” species, the mountain gorilla has an herbaceous diet, with very little fruit and no meat other than insects. Proboscis and other colobus monkeys have sacculated stomachs (chambered) to aid in digestion of (often bitter) plant material, such as leaves.
In a general sense, most primates are found in tropical areas, with just a few genera found in more temperate climates. In fact, the generalized primate (one who can live in numerous ecological niches and eat a more general omnivorous diet) is rare. This includes some macaques, baboons, and of course humans. Thus, unsurprisingly, change in climate reasonably explains the extinction of numerous species of primates.
Wild primate populations are currently found in fairly specific regions and climates in almost 100 different countries throughout the world. They are found throughout Africa and Asia (Old World) and in both Central and South America (New World). Most primates live on or near the equator in tropical areas or rain forests. In fact, more than 90% of all primate species today live in tropical areas, and their fate is directly linked to the places in which they call home, forests. One species in particular, however, does live in northern Japan (Japanese macaques). There is only one species of primate found in Europe—the Barbary ape. The name is somewhat of a misnomer because the Barbary ape is actually a monkey but has no tail, and that may be the reason it was given the name.
Around the time dinosaurs went extinct, the fossil record reveals the first true primates. These ancestors of modern primates were small in size, active at night (nocturnal), and moved through their environments on all four limbs, quadrupedally. They were mainly in the form of lemur and lorislike creatures, smaller forms dating back to older epochs. The earliest known primate (ancestor) was around in the Paleocene or Cretaceous period. It was a tiny, insect-eating fossil mammal not unlike a tree shrew called Purgatorius. Then the rise and increase in numbers and diversity of primates was seen in the Miocene epoch. Around 30 million years ago (mya), monkey and apelike primates surfaced. Approximately 4 mya, hominids began to appear, and with this new species of primate came the adaptation to ground living and walking, or bipedalism. The Pleistocene is the epoch in which we currently find 234 (plus or minus) different types of primates. As each radiation of different primates occurs with each epoch, we also see the extinction of particular species.
Human evolution and adaptation expert John Fleagle (1988) stated, “The extinction of plesiadapiforms, for example, coincides roughly with the radiation of both rodents and early prosimians, and the decline of proconsulids in the middle and late Miocene of Africa is associated with an increased abundance of cercopithecoid monkeys” (p. 460).
The record indicates that first rodents extinguished smaller forms of primates, and then later, larger forms of primates extinguished smaller forms of primates. This demonstrates a pattern of one animal form eradicating another. Humans, being one of the larger forms of primate species and undoubtedly the most prolific, also apparently display the same tendency.
Predation is one explanation for the disappearance of large numbers of primates (and other animals). It is known that humans have been hunting primates into endangerment and even extinction for hundreds of thousands of years. It is thought that during the Pleistocene in East Africa human predation was also responsible for annihilation of many large monkeys. Some 2,000 years ago (indicated by fossil data) with the arrival of Homo sapiens to Madagascar, we see numerous primate species driven into extinction. Archaeoindri, a gorilla sized lemur became extinct at this point. Today, many of the remaining species of lemurs found on Madagascar are also considered highly endangered—the main reason, human.
As nature specialist David Quammen (1998) stated, “The concept of mass extinction implies a biological crisis that spanned large parts of the planet and, in a relatively short time, eradicated a sizable number of species from a variety of groups” (p. 58). Once this point is reached, viable populations no longer exist and so vanishes the goal of each biological organism perpetuation of self into the next generation. Specifically, Quammen (1996) added,
The crux of the matter of extinction … is not who or what kills the last individual. The final death reflects only a proximate cause. The ultimate cause or causes, may be quite different. By the time the death of its last individual becomes imminent, a species has already lost too many battles in the war for survival …. Its evolutionary adaptability is largely gone. Ecologically, it has become moribund. (p. 77)
It is well-known that human activity is changing weather patterns and ultimately the climate. In addition, competition from other primates (humans) coupled with destruction of natural habitats now accounts for the largest extinction seen in history. Comparatively, recent historical times have shown extinction on a small scale. As Quammen (1998) told it, “Between 1600 and 1900, by his tally, it is believed that humans caused the extinction of about 75 known species, almost all of them mammals and birds. Between 1900 and 1979, humans had extinguished about another 75 known species” (p. 59). Obviously, unrecorded and unknown extinctions are not factored into these numbers. This rate is well above rates of known loss during the Cretaceous extinction (the most recent and perhaps most famous of all extinctions, extinction of dinosaurs). Mathematical calculations can be done estimating current rates of destruction and the number of species that will therefore become extinct. As an example, it has been estimated by W. V. Reid of the World Resources Institute that before 2040 up to one third of tropical forest species will either be extinct or doomed to extinction unless drastic change occurs. This has grave implications for a slow-reproducing, long-living animal, such as a primate.
Some argue that extinctions (in mass scale) are natural— having occurred at least 5 other times in history. The difference this time is what makes the current situation most alarming, the rapid degree at which it is occurring, as well as the cause. Smaller extinctions were thought to take only one species per major group per million years according to experts such as Quammen. It is believed that this background rate was counterbalanced by the evolution of new species. Mass extinction tells a different story.
Primates are vulnerable to extinction for several reasons. Lengthy interbirth intervals coupled with long lives are characteristics often associated with primates. With that, comes grave conservation implications for both individuals as well as species, not to mention overall ecological diversity.
In a general sense, primates are considered slow breeders compared to other animals. While some are capable of producing offspring up to twice a year, that is rare. As an example, for each of the ape species, the time between births (interbirth interval) varies from up to 2 years in gibbons to up to 9 years for orangutans. Chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas all have approximately 4 to 6 years between births. For a species that only gives birth normally once every 9 years, vulnerability to extinction looms closely.
However, there are additional reasons, which make the issue more complex. Proboscis monkeys are currently found in the wild only in Borneo and are at great risk. Their numbers are estimated at less than 10,000. They have very specialized diets, including certain leaves, which require the unique digestion that only a sacculated stomach can provide, and do not do well in captivity. Proboscis monkeys seem to have a rather calm and sensitive temperament in contrast to, say, a macaque or baboon. It is for these reasons that these culturally distinct monkeys are some of our most vulnerable to extinction.
Another example provided, this time on the African continent, is found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo— the bonobo. These great apes are genetically 98.5% plus similar to humans and considered to be temperamentally sensitive and also culturally unique. According to bonobo and chimpanzee expert Frans B. M. de Waal, during World War II bombings near the Hellabrun zoo, captive bonobos died of fright in zoos, while their chimpanzee cousins remained seemingly “unaffected.” Bonobos have proven to be one of the most intelligent (in human measured terms) species ever documented, with capabilities for language, tool use and innovation, and other various attributes. Thus far, bonobos are the only known species to use sex for more than pleasure and reproduction. It has been widely researched that they rely on sex to diffuse aggression.
Both bonobos and proboscis monkeys are two diverse species found within this particular order in the animal kingdom. Yet sadly, we as humans risk their very existence at the hands of our own ignorance and greed.
Human overpopulation is one reason for endangerment of other species. Even though a few countries and states have declining population growth, overall world population continues to grow at an alarming rate. This compounds an already bad situation by putting enormous pressure on available land (and therefore biodiversity).
Destruction of habitat comes in a variety of packages, most often for the reason of land conversion for resource exploitation. For example, in Indonesian rain forests (home to many different species of plant and animal) wood is harvested for several reasons. These include use for plywood, furniture, homes, fuel, knickknacks, and even toothpicks. As Franke Wilmer (1993) articulated in In the Indigenous Voice in World Politics Since Time Immemorial, “The international demand for hardwood between 1950 and 1985 increased from four to seventy million cubic meters. Japan and the United States are the primary consumers. The Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia are the primary suppliers” (p. 17). It seems our insatiable desire for wood may doom our closest living relatives.
Land conversion (for profit) is another reason why primate habitat is disappearing. This includes logging, over-grazing cattle for human consumption, and converting natural, undisturbed areas to cash-bearing profit crops (such as rain forest to palm plantation or small-scale forest to tourist destination). Plantations for coconut, palm, rubber, sugar, and so on are also devastating the natural environment including many forested regions in tropical places, such as Asia and Africa. Palm oil is the chosen oil used in almost every household throughout Southeast Asia. Indonesia, home to the endangered orangutan, is the largest producer of the plant. It is used locally, as well as exported to countries throughout the world. It is found in numerous consumable products sold in the United States, including cakes, cookies, candy, crackers, soap, and so on. In fact, some believe that palm plantations have replaced the frenzied logging industry because the rate of destruction is even greater for this type of land conversion than simply taking product out of the forest.
Another threat to primates is the transmission of disease between animal and human (zoonosis). Numerous viruses and parasites can pass between humans and nonhuman primates. These include the common cold viruses, malaria, tuberculosis (TB), herpes, scabies, Ebola, HIV (which in primates is a form called SIV), and so on. Because of the genetic similarity between primates and humans (up to 98.5% between chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans) justification for medical testing on primates is not uncommon. Ironically, however, often the disease affects the given primate differently than it does in the human counterpart. It is believed that HIV originated from the blood and butchering of a chimpanzee in Africa in the 1950s; however, HIV is not fatal to chimpanzees. Unfortunately, medical testing and the infection of HIV in chimpanzees has resulted in a captive ape population, which is now lethally dangerous to humans but didn’t further knowledge and understanding of the disease in humans. The care for infected individuals (that often live lengthy lives and cannot be afforded exposure to others of its kind) is yet another ethical (and financial) concern born of this type of situation.
Primates are also poached out of the wild to be used for medical research testing. Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center regularly imports primates to be used in medical experiments. At one time, the center had one of the largest populations of captive orangutans originally intended for biological warfare experimentation. Currently, macaques seem to have been deemed to be experimented on for diseases ranging from TB to HIV (or SIV in the primate form). In addition, international demands for biomedical testing on primates have had serious effects on certain populations such as rhesus macaques. In India, they nearly became extinct from “over-harvesting.” Until recently, conservational status has rarely been a concern. There are numerous considerations to this issue, in particular the ethics of capturing and holding primates for human experimentation is of grave ethical concern.
Nearly universally, primates are soft, cuddly, charming, and intelligent, exuding great appeal to humans. Therefore, capturing primates to be used as pets is another factor affecting their conservational status. People see them used for entertainment on TV or in movies, performing at circuses and at zoos, and people think they might make good pets. Primates are often willful and, particularly great apes, are at least 5 times stronger than most humans. They also bite and can carry diseases.
And while difficult to obtain a primate for a pet in the United States, that’s not always the case with other countries. For example, in Taiwan until it became a member of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (in 1990), it was considered fairly easy to obtain a primate such as an orangutan for private homes. C. Martin and E. Martin stated,
In the period 1987-1990 the demand was so great that more than a thousand (and possibly as many as two thousand) orangutan youngsters were smuggled out of Indonesia to supply a private market which was reportedly prepared to pay anything between US$ 11,000 and 20,000 for an individual ape. While to some it may seem a high financial price to bear for humans, for primates, the cost is far greater. (cited in Rijksen and Meijaard, 1999, p. 121).
Capture for any animal is disruptive to say the least and traumatizing, often fatally so. There is no way to obtain an infant primate in the wild without killing its mother and often the entire family unit. There are numerous estimates on how taking one primate member out of its natural group in the wild negatively affects not just the individual but also its entire family and sometimes community. For example, experts such as Dian Fossey (1983), Geza Teleki (chimpanzee expert), and Herman Rijksen (1982; orangutan expert) approximate that for every infant ape captured at least 5 adults were killed; in another estimation, only 1 in 5 captives may survive long enough to reach its destination.
Primates are very dependent on their mothers for information critical to survival in the wild. Therefore, it is biological instinct for a mother to protect her infant at any cost. Further, in the case of mountain gorillas, the silver-back will protect any member of his group and fight to his own death in the effort to protect them from humans or other dangers. Since gorilla groups can be as large as 20 members, this can mean a severe depletion in population when people hunt primates for pets or entertainment.
Hunting primates for food is another threat to them. Some local human populations throughout Africa have hunted animals in the forest for hundreds of years. Prior to the globalization of forest products, such as mahogany wood used for furniture, remote hunting was much more difficult. In more recent times, infrastructure provided by logging companies now contributes to access of previously restricted areas. The logger then subsidizes the hunter by providing weapons and guns and also provides free transportation into the forest, home to so many different species of primates. As authors Dale Peterson and Karl Ammann (2003) depicted, “It is possible to imagine that the loggers and the hunters and the meat traders are working side by side in a single coordinated and continuous activity: the industrialized extraction of valuable resources from a great forest” (p. 116). Companies bring in large numbers of nonnatives (and their families) and thereby stimulate the bushmeat business by supplying new consumers. It is said that typically these workers can afford more meat than people living locally. The authors also talk about studies in which wood workers were consuming bushmeat 2 to 3 times as often as natives in nearby villages. Employment for hunters is also provided by logging companies that may depend on them to eat. So here lies the connection between demand for wood, habitat destruction, bushmeat, and the endangerment of primates.
Unlike more natural causes for extinctions (such as effects from weather or other natural catastrophe), hunting has a greater influence on overall species numbers. In nature, the weaker, smaller, or diseased members are usually most affected. Hunters, on the other hand, will look for the largest animals available, females with dependent offspring (in the case of hunting for the pet trade), or even hunt indiscriminately. Chronic pressure on primate populations by hunters is a further effect negatively affecting conservational status. The extinction (or near extinction) of certain monkeys is believed to be a direct result of bushmeat. It’s difficult to know for certain because one of the ways in which conservationists know a primate female has been killed is in encountering her infant in captivity. For the hunted male, no such immediate record exists, though his body parts may wind up in commercial trade as relics intended for selling to tourists. For example, decorated, adult male orangutan skulls or even gorilla hands used for ashtrays are sometimes found intended for sale. Obviously, losing reproductive age females has significant implications in the overall conservation of the species.
Further compounding the issue is the fact that certain consumers have developed a cultural preference for bush-meat, such as gorilla. Primatologist Craig Stanford (2001) described it this way:
At an open air market in Yaounde, capital of Cameroon, a brand-new sports utility vehicle sweeps past a row of rusting tin-roofed shacks, stops in a cloud of dust, and disgorges a pair of Cameroonian yuppies in white tennis whites. They bargain briefly with a vendor seated behind wicker baskets piled with slabs of smoked meats and climb back into the SUV with the hand of a gorilla, the leg of a chimpanzee. Two hundred miles away, a logging truck rumbles along a rutted dirt road cut through the forest the previous year. Tethered to various parts of the truck are more animal parts, mainly duiker antelope but also gorilla. The meat, the surplus of what the logging crews have for their table, is being shipped via the forest road out to the towns for commercial sale. Along the way the truckers stop at settlements where more parcels of bushmeat are loaded on. The logging truck works for more than the loggers; it is the flagship of the ape bushmeat industry. The logging crew employs hunters at its camp to supplement the starchy diet the company provides. The company, a French-based conglomerate, knows this; in fact they have supplied the logging crew with big-barreled guns, intended to kill anything from gorilla size on down. (pp. 192-193)
Also, the role the government plays in this economic and global issue must be examined. It has been said that some officials not only condone consumption of bushmeat but will also serve and eat it themselves. In some central African countries, gorilla meat has been served at state dinners as well as found in metropolitan cities, such as Paris and London. This implies some sort of preference for bushmeat by the cultural elite. In addition, it has been found in areas where there are migrant populations of central Africans. Each species of great ape (as well as many monkey species) is potentially affected by this. The International Primate Protection League (2008) reported infant victims of the bushmeat trade ending up at a bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These infants’ mothers have been killed by hunters and poachers. Primates including chimpanzees, gorillas, and even slow lorises are also hunted for medicinal use.
Orangutans are not exempt from this threat either. Though shocking to learn, orangutan meat is said to be available for sale in local markets in Indonesia. According to orangutan experts Rijksen and Meijaard (1999), it is believed that at least two restaurants in Jakarta and even perhaps in other Southeast Asian cities orangutan and gibbon organs and meat are available at extraordinarily high prices, subject to availability. In addition, it’s rumored that wealthy, east Asian customers place advance orders and on special occasion indulge in “primitive substitution cannibalism.” It is this idea that then begs the question—though bushmeat hunting has gone on for generations—is the degree at which we currently see it occur sustainable, ethical, or even necessary.
Over on the Asian continent, primates are also hunted for consumption by humans but on a smaller and less direct scale. For example, orangutans, which have been hunted by local populations of Dayaks for centuries, are also at great risk but not due to overhunting and bushmeat, as seen in Africa. It is anticipated that the overall population in Indonesia will surpass 250 million people by the year 2020. The consequences of this growth will be perhaps most felt by biological organisms such as the slow-breeding orangutan. The ever-growing, insatiable quest for commodities by humans will present a sobering picture: the pushing of our primate cousin toward the edge of extinction.
Orangutans are therefore moving rapidly toward the edge of extinction. They are suffering mostly due to habitat loss as their forest homes turn into palm plantations for human consumption. So while they aren’t directly hunted as often as African primates, they are as vulnerable due to the same global forces that are driving our African relatives into extinction.
Primates, especially the charismatic apes, are also exploited for entertainment in the media. Again according to experts Rijksen and Meijaard (1999), a Taiwanese television sequel (also featuring an adolescent male orangutan) called “The Naughty Family” ignited a “booming demand” for pet orangutans. It continues here in the United States as well. 1996 brought another star to American film: Dunston Checks in Again features another male orangutan, igniting an inappropriate interest in keeping primates as pets.
The American film Any Which Way You Can, starring Clint Eastwood and a subadult male orangutan, ignited an interest in keeping apes for pets. Most people don’t realize that training an animal up to 8 times as strong as an adult human male, with keen cognitive abilities, often requires brute force. Many viewers may also be unaware that according to Peterson and Goodall (2000), authors of Visions of Caliban, the original orangutan “Clyde” was trained with a
can of mace and a pipe wrapped in newspaper. He was viciously beaten the day before filming started to make him more docile. Near the end of filming the sequel Any Which Way You Can, the orangutan was caught stealing doughnuts on the set, brought back to the training facility and beaten for 20 minutes with a 3 1/2-foot ax handle. He died sometime soon after of a cerebral hemorrhage” (pp. 145-146).
Future Directions: Conservation
The goal of conservation in general is to limit loss wherever possible. In the words of conservationist Russell Mittermeier (1996), a broad approach includes the following:
(1) protecting areas for particularly endangered and vulnerable species; (2) creating large national parks and reserves in areas of high primate diversity or abundance; (3) maintaining parks and reserves that already exist and enforcing protective legislature in them; (4) creating public awareness of the need for primate conservation and the importance of primates as both a national heritage and a resource;… (5) determining ways in which people and other primates can coexist in multiple-use areas. (p. 1)
These efforts will help ensure that future generations understand and appreciate what has taken 65 million years in evolution and adaptation to create.
CITES (initiated in the 1970s) has helped the conservation of plants and animals by ranking just how threatened, endangered, and vulnerable each is to extinction. With more than 160 participating countries, laws have become more strictly enforced in hopes of saving and preserving the biodiversity still found in today’s modern world.
The idea of sustainable development is often used in association with conservation and globalization today. It looks at efficient management of resources and production levels, which increase or maintain productivity while causing minimum (or preferably no) damage to the environment. Specifically, too, sustainable development must be economically viable, ecologically sound, and culturally acceptable. It’s often a high order for a sometimes theoretic idea.
Protection plays a significant role in the conservation of primates. It is necessary that this occurs on several levels. Individual primates, entire species, as well as their habitat must all be protected. The rain forest is a biological system, which produces valuable product. When trees are cut unsustainably, precious nutrients are depleted, exacerbated by processes such as farming and cultivation. People must understand this connection between rain forest products and balance within a natural system. It requires awareness and recognition of the value of living primates. This occurs through education of not just values but also important factors, such as evolution, disease transmission, primate cognition, and general biodiversity. Primates must then be protected by laws, and those must be enforced rather than risk more theoretic conservation and less applied protection of them.
Establishing wildlife or habitat corridors has the potential to also aid greatly in the conservation of many different primate species. This enables animals to move safely from one area to another, allowing important processes to occur, such as seed dispersal and gene flow. Seed dispersal contributes to overall biodiversity of all life. Evolutionarily speaking, gene flow is critical for reducing risk of inbreeding for smaller populations of primates.
Captive breeding and reintroduction plans offer some hope toward the preservation of certain primate species. The species most often highlighted as successful is the golden lion tamarin. It is an example of a species successfully brought back from the brink of extinction. Native to Brazil, these tiny primates had become incredibly endangered. Golden lion tamarin experts D. G. Kleiman and A. B. Rylands stated,
By 1975, fewer than 200 golden lion tamarins were estimated to survive in just a few small patches of Atlantic Forest in the state of Rio de Janeiro; but by 2000, their numbers in the wild were estimated at about 1000, with another 500 or so housed in zoos. (Campbell, Fuentes, MacKinnon, Panger, & Bearder, 2007, p. 505)
Also, incredibly, as many as 40% of golden lion tamarins found in the wild today were either born in captivity and reintroduced into the wild or are descendants of these captive born animals. Part of the success of the golden lion tamarin conservation program is attributed to small size and high reproductive rates of these monkeys (weighing approximately only 4-5 ounces and reproducing up to every 160 days or so). Also, protected habitats still available contribute greatly to the conservation success seen with golden lion tamarins.
Well-regulated ecotourism is another avenue that can lead toward the conservation of primates. As an example, both orangutans and mountain gorillas are species that interact with ecotourists. Through education and awareness to the public, the plight of the given species becomes more real to the visitor through a hands-on rather than theoretic understanding of issues these primates are facing today. Ideally, this can lead to behavior that is more globally responsible in educating the consumer on how consumptive choices may or may not affect a given species. It also brings employment and money into local populations who then take part in the caring for the apes or the parks in which they are found.
Another avenue of conservation in effort toward overall protection and prevention of extinction is rehabilitation. Dr. Carey Yeager (1996) defined rehabilitation in this way: “Rehabilitation implies a process in which animals in captivity are given medical treatment, protective care, and experience or training necessary for successful life in the wild” (p. 10). In addition, skills such as foraging, finding appropriate food sources, climbing, nest building, and even social interaction between conspecifics are developed and nurtured.
It is a difficult and time-consuming process, further complicated by financial challenges. Most agree that this wildlife management tool should be used only as, in the words of orangutan experts H. D. Rijksen and E. Meijaard (1999), a “temporary measure to remedy a weakness in the legal framework concerning the conservation of protected species” (p. 154), as opposed to using it as an end all solution toward combating global issues surrounding endangerment. In other words, if the legal framework were enough, rehabilitation would be unnecessary. The goal of returning to a life in the wild though sometimes lofty is critical to those providing rehabilitative care for endangered primates. There are numerous rehabilitation projects located throughout the world. In particular, the island of Borneo, home to most of the remaining world population of orangutans, has several orangutan rehabilitation projects. Examples include Sepilok, located in Malaysian Borneo, which is known for its educational center and strict adherence to quarantine procedures. Semengok is also located in Malaysian Borneo and is locally known as an orangutan rehabilitation center. Wanariset (Indonesian Borneo) adheres to strict quarantine and release procedures for animals entering into the center. Nyaru Menting is the newest orangutan rehabilitation center and has been featured on Animal Planet’s “Orangutan Island” series. It is fastidiously run, and care for individual orangutans, as well as the overall species, is quite apparent. Camp Leakey, now a destination for tourists, is home to ex-captive orangutans, as well as wild ones. These are just some examples of orangutan rehabilitation in one geographic area of the world. When done well, it can serve as a model for other species in other parts of the world, facing similar challenges.
Additional efforts focus on providing sanctuary for endangered primates. Different than rehabilitation, a sanctuary does not have the goal of returning the individual to the wild. A prime example located within the United States is a sanctuary for lesser apes located in South Carolina. The International Primate Protection League (or IPPL) cares for 30 some gibbons rescued from biomedical labs, zoos, and even the homes of people who once had them as pets.
Many Western-living people have first come to know primates in zoos. Historically, however, most animals came from the wild, and those that survived often ended up in zoos. In Our Vanishing Relative, authors Rijksen and Meijaard (1999) depicted a Dutch animal collector named van Goens who was rumored to specialize in hunting adult orangutans rather than juveniles, arriving in Amsterdam with a reported 25 (sold for 25,000 German marks per pair). Then, for the Ringling Brothers Circus, he imported 33 more orangutans. Not one year later, the Dutchman returned to Amsterdam with another 44 orangutans, all from Sumatra. Based on records from zoos, at least 218 orangutans were exported from Indonesia between 1924 and 1943.
Modern-day zoos house many animals who have been born in captivity (to parents and grandparents caught in the wild). They are now considered another vehicle used in the conservation of those very species. Within some zoos and aquariums, the Species Survival Program was developed in an effort to help certain species deemed most endangered. Its focus is on select animals that are in danger of becoming extinct in the wild. The program was developed with the idea that zoos and other captive breeding programs may be these species best chance to survive. By maintaining a healthy and genetically diverse population, these management programs offer some hope as more and more habitat is destroyed, fragmenting larger populations of animals, which large-bodied, slow-breeding primates are especially vulnerable to. Ideally, those rescued from poachers and pet traffickers should be the only members held captive and on display, in hopes of furthering education about the plight so many primates face today. As ambassadors for their species, these individuals carry significant educational and awareness messages for their closest living relatives to those who have put them in the greatest danger of potential extinction.
Conservational efforts focus on megafauna or flagship species (charismatic animals attracting attention to the plight of the given species). Primates, especially the great apes, certainly hold such appeal. For example, the Great Ape Project founded in 1993 by Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer (1993) is an international organization of experts from a range of fields including primatologists, psychologists, and ethicists. The UN declaration of the Rights of Great Apes would confer basic legal rights on nonhuman great apes: chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, and gorillas. Specifically, of the rights suggested, the first is the right to life. Individuals are to be protected and not killed, except in self-defense. Protection of individual liberty, essentially the right to not be imprisoned or held captive is the second right. The right to be free from infliction of pain (torture) either wantonly or for alleged benefit of others is considered basic. This has obvious positive conservation implications for at least these four species.
All hope is not lost. At the turn of this century, estimates for lowland gorilla populations were around 100,000. In July 2008, a population was discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo at 125,000—upping the overall total to more than 200,000 gorillas today. Also, since Dian Fossey’s time (late 1960s through mid 1980s), mountain gorilla populations have tripled, though with still just over 700, they are still considered critically endangered.
Another hopeful example as of late 2008 was reported on the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey. A small population of this extremely rare monkey, with its distinctive upturned nose, has recently been discovered in a remote forest in northern Vietnam.
As reported in Science Daily in late 2008, the monkeys were believed to be extinct until the late 1980s, with only approximately 200 Tonkin monkeys remaining in the wild. In April of 2008, biologists managed to observe 15 to 20 individuals (including 3 infants). This exciting discovery offers hope for the snub-nosed monkey’s future.
The past includes very little known information on primates in general. The last 30 to 40 years have brought a wealth of information about primate behavior to the forefront, crucial to understanding conservation issues. Presently, we are at what many experts consider to be the “11th Hour” in terms of understanding enough of the complexities involved in primate conservation and endangerment to prevent extinction. The future, while bleak in some ways, also offers increasing hope. As the human population expands so does our understanding of our kin. We have been endowed with tremendous cognitive abilities, and it is my hope that we will put those abilities toward great use in the preservation of our closest living relatives—the primates.