Golden Lion Tamarin Coming Back : Science: Monkey came back from brink of extinction. Now scientists say the Brazilian reserve where primates were released into the wild must quadruple in size.
Up in a murky tangle of vines and branches in the Atlantic Forest, a high-pitched squeal breaks the dewy stillness of morning.
The branches swish. Out of the shadows bursts a flash of orange-gold--a golden lion tamarin, one of the world’s most unusual primate species and one of the last few hundred on earth.
The slender monkey gives a sharp, rasping call, a food call, and a female tamarin leaps through the high limbs like a streak of fiery liquid. Around her reddish body hangs a rope-like ring of honey-hued fur: two baby tamarins.
Soon, the parents are cuddling the babies in a tree hollow, teaching them to chew bugs and seedpods. It’s a welcome sign that the zoo-born monkeys, at least, are thriving in the wild.
Thirty years ago these shy, squirrel-sized monkeys appeared doomed to extinction. Loggers cleared their forest habitats. Poachers trapped them for zoos. Dealers sold them as household pets--$25,000 apiece.
By 1967, fewer than 70 were known to survive on the planet.
But an international crusade to save the tamarin and its habitat has pulled the animal back from the brink. Now there’s hope the species may survive in the wild beyond the 21st century.
The World Wildlife Fund, the Smithsonian Institution, the Frankfurt Zoological Society and Canada have joined Brazil in a risky project to breed tamarins in captivity and set them loose in the wild.
Tamarins from 120 zoos around the world are trained to survive in the forest and released into their last stronghold, here at the Poco das Antas Wildlife Reserve about 80 miles northeast of Rio de Janeiro.
The project is the first of its kind. It comes as primates and their rain forest habitats around the world are disappearing at the fastest rate in history.
Primates classified as endangered now number 67. They include the aye-aye lemur of Madagascar, the woolly spider monkey (South America’s largest primate), and the mountain gorilla of central Africa.
But at Poco das Antas, the tamarin is coming back.
Today, 703 tamarins live in a fragment of the Atlantic Forest, now reduced to 456 patches of less than 3% its original size. When Portuguese explorers arrived in 1500, the forest extended along 4,500 square miles of Brazil’s eastern seaboard.
What remains, though, is a biological a treasure of flora and fauna more diverse than the Amazon rain forests to the north.
The wilderness contains 15% of all known species and is home to 171 of Brazil’s 202 endangered animals. Three years ago, botanists in Bahia state discovered a record 450 types of trees in a 2.5-square-acre area.
“This is not just about saving monkeys,” said Kathryn Fuller, president of the World Wildlife Fund. “The tamarin is the symbol of a bigger effort, a campaign to preserve one of the most important ecosystems on earth--the Atlantic Forest.”
The tamarin stands at the top of the forest’s food chain, she explained. Its presence is a sign of a healthy ecosystem.
“You know your forest is doing OK if tamarins are living in it,” Fuller said. “They thrive only in habitats with a wide variety of plant, insect and animal life.”
It took what primate experts regard as a miracle of nature to get them to act to save the tamarin.
It happened one morning in 1968. A rancher, out surveying a stand of forest he planned to cut in Silva Jardim--about 10 miles south of Poco das Antas--suddenly heard a piercing screech.
It froze him.
He looked up to see a family of monkeys with lion-like manes squatting on the branches, watching him intently.
The man and the monkeys stared at each other in silence. Slowly, other monkeys gathered in the canopy above. Later, primatologists discovered there were 300 tamarins in the area.
“It was a gift from God,” says Maria Cecilia Kierulff. “That forest was so small they should have died long ago.” She is a biologist who introduces zoo-born tamarins to the wild.
With help from the U.S. National Zoological Park and the Smithsonian Institution, Adelmar Coimbra-Filho, a pioneer of Brazilian primatology, founded the Poco das Antas reserve in 1974.
He began linking isolated patches of original forest with regrown trees while workers “translocated” the newly discovered wild tamarins to the 13,000-acre reserve.
Meanwhile, U.S. and European zoos bred captive animals and taught them the tricks of the wild. At first, the lessons didn’t go so smoothly.
“These monkeys couldn’t even open a banana,” said Lou Ann Dietz, a WWF program officer. “They fell out of trees and had a hard time catching lizards to eat. But eventually they caught on.”
By 1983 the number of captive tamarins had risen to 500 and the project team concluded they had done all they could to prepare them for the great outdoors.
On May 31, 1984, naturalists flew in 15 tamarins from the National Zoo in Washington and released them in the forest.
The result was a disaster. The adults were clumsy, slow to find food. And they spent too much time on the ground, where predators lurk. After six months only four tamarins remained.
Project workers spent more time with the next batch, teaching them to forage for food, balance on thin branches, find tree hollows for sleeping places. They also fitted them with radio collars to track them.
The next three groups fared better. In 1989, 11 of 15 tamarins released in a group survived and gave birth to three infants.
The project also began an educational program. A community center was built on the reserve to teach conservation. Local ranchers are invited to see slide shows and satellite photos that reveal forest damage.
“We showed one new landowner who had been clearing forest the images and he actually broke down in tears,” Dietz says.
Landowners now replant trees to stop erosion. Some have registered their land with the government as ecological sanctuaries for eco-tourism.
Garo Batmanian, who works on reforesting the reserve, said tamarins now roam through 14,300 acres of private land with the permission of local ranchers.
The tamarins’ worst enemies include deadly viruses and forest fires. In 1990, a blaze raged for 50 days.
It destroyed a third of the reserve but spared the tamarins.
The group’s genetic pool is limited, and scientists worry that eventually the tamarins could suffer inbreeding depression, a decline in fertility that often appears in populations with little genetic variability. So they keep family histories on all tamarins.
But for now the big worry isn’t managing the monkeys but expanding their habitat.
Computer analysis shows the tamarin population must grow to 2,000 by 2025 or genetic problems will kill off the species by the 22nd century, Dietz says.
To maintain reproduction rates and sustain 2,000 tamarins, the reserve must quadruple in size to 57,000 acres by 2025.
“It’s the 11th hour and the extinction clock is ticking,” Dietz says.
“We’ve got a chance. The odds are about 50-50 we’ll make it. But those are better odds than we had years ago.”