By Javier Salas
The figures he refers to are shocking: 60% of primates are threatened with extinction. From the gigantic 200 kg mountain gorillas to the tiny 30 gram mouse lemurs, primates are on their way to disappearing forever in the wild because of the pressure exerted by humans with agriculture, hunting, logging, mining ... "Given the reduced size of the populations and the intensity of the threats, we could soon experience a cascade of extinctions. We cannot afford it!", alerts Estrada.
A primate, the human, seems determined to extinguish its closest relatives in an all-out battle in which forces are completely unbalanced: in just 50 years, three out of four species of primates will have disappeared, 378 of the 504 registered. We have just learned this thanks to a macro-study co-led by Estrada in which thirty other specialists have participated, published inScience Advances. "We are really very concerned and our article is a call for global action for the scientific community in general and for the public and politicians to avoid this," defends the Mexican primatologist.
The study is very rich in data and information to know in detail how this extermination is taking place. In Asia, 73% of primates are threatened, a figure that rises in Madagascar, the kingdom of the lemurs, to 87%. The Sumatran orangutan has lost 60% of its habitat in just two decades, and is expected to lose as much as 30% in the coming decades to logging (usually for palm oil production) and climate change.
Researchers have been very thorough in their description of the threats that decimate our relatives. Although there are important differences between regions, agriculture stands out as the main problem, since it has eaten 76% of the habitats in which monkeys, apes, lemurs and others live. Between 1990 and 2010, agricultural practices have consumed 1.5 million square kilometers of these habitats, three times the total area of Spain, and two million square kilometers of forest cover have been lost. But the worst is what is to come: the future expansion of crops comprises two-thirds of the area that these mammals inhabit. "This will cause an unprecedented territorial conflict with 75% of primate species worldwide," the article concludes.
Agricultural practices do not act alone. Hunting accounts for 60% of the direct losses of these animals, with an emerging problem: that of capturing primates for human consumption. An estimated 150,000 primates are traded annually in Nigeria and Cameroon on the market for meat to eat. Furthermore, logging affects 60% of habitats and livestock 31%. And mining, despite being very localized in small territories, is showing a very serious destructive capacity because it contributes to deforestation, forest degradation, contamination and poisoning of soils and waters. Coltan miners in central Africa hunt monkeys for food, another terrifying and unexpected spin-off of the consumer cycle surrounding mobile phones.
This study, in addition to being the first to provide a global description of the conservation status of the world's primates and the anthropogenic pressures that affect their persistence, also provides ideas and solutions to mitigate local, regional and global species loss. "While addressing the main threats to primate populations requires global policies, a local approach would be constructive," explains Estrada, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "Deforestation, unsustainable hunting and illegal trade could be tackled quickly," he says, "with the aim of sensitizing the population of urban and rural areas that primates are an important component of their natural capital. To conserve them with their habitats and stopping illegal trade means investing in the future. "
There is an important factor that stands out when analyzing the contexts in which non-human primates suffer the most: the poverty of human primates. "The common denominator of these regions is high levels of poverty and inequality, loss of natural capital due to global market demands, poor governance, lack of food security and low literacy. Addressing these issues is a priority to ensure the conservation of primates ", defends the specialist.
The importance goes far beyond the beauty of primates, their diversity and our ability to recognize ourselves in their gaze. "We owe our humanity to a shared evolutionary history," says Estrada. Numerous recent works certify the fundamental role that these primates play in their ecosystems, and protecting them would mean investing in the umbrella effect, in which saving one species implies defending many others because the balance of the natural cycle of their environment is maintained.
The macroecologist David Nogués-Bravo, who has not participated in this study, considers it of great relevance for making a global synthesis of the problem. "Developing local economies in tropical countries, reducing consumption rates in developed countries and protecting forests may be the only, and last for some species of primates, a solution to this extinction event", explains this specialist from the University of Copenhagen. "The extinction of primates would radically change many areas of jungles and forests in the world, reducing the capacity of forests to regenerate, because they are an essential factor in the dispersal of seeds," he defends.
"We are sure that in many cases the difficult situation in which our fellow primates find themselves is not known by the global community, including local and national governments," says the researcher, and that is the reason why they publish their study . The last sentences of the scientific article are a call to action: "We have one last chance to reduce or even eliminate human threats to primates and their habitats, to guide conservation efforts and to increase global awareness of their situation. Primates are extremely important to humanity. After all, they are our closest living biological relatives. "