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What’s Behind the Impending Primate Mass Extinction

Apes and monkeys are in trouble—and that means we are too, researchers argue.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Desirey Minkoh/AFP/Getty Images)

Though we don’t think much about non-human primates, they certainly play an integral role in our lives. Apes and monkeys help to maintain biodiversity and forest health, are important cultural and religious symbols, and have generally provided scientists with valuable insights into the world.

It’s a real shame, then, that we’re driving them to extinction.

“Alarmingly, ~60% of primate species are now threatened with extinction and ~75% have declining populations,” Alejandro Estrada, Paul A. Garber, and a team of researchers representing 28 institutions on six continents write in Science Advances. The researchers came to that conclusion by analyzing data from the scientific literature, the United Nations, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List (a compendium of threatened and endangered species).

“This situation is the result of escalating anthropogenic pressures on primates and their habitats,” they write, “mainly global and local market demands, leading to extensive habitat loss through the expansion of industrial agriculture, large-scale cattle ranching, logging, oil and gas drilling, mining, dam building, and the construction of new road networks in primate range regions.” These factors all contribute to the destruction of primates’ (mostly forest) habitat. Hunting, illegal trade in primates as pets, climate change, and human disease have also played a part in the declines, the team writes.

“Primates are critically important to humanity. After all, they are our closest living biological relatives.”

This doesn’t just put monkeys and apes at risk, the authors argue; it’s also a threat to humans. Apart from what they’ve taught us about our own behavior, biology, and evolution, monkeys figure in social and religious traditions in the Amazon, and play prominent religious and cultural roles in Asia. They can also be major tourist draws, as is the case with the monkey-swarmed Swayambhunath temple in the Kathmandu Valley.

Primates are surprisingly important to their ecosystems, serving as “ecosystem engineers” that feed on trees and plants in ways that slow or speed their growth. (They may have also played a role in the evolution of those plants in the first place.) And they help disperse seeds for tree species that humans rely on.

Given their importance, Estrada, Garber, and their colleagues propose a number of protective measures, both traditional—expanding protected areas and fighting illegal hunting and trade—and less traditional — reducing poverty and promoting strategies to reduce birth rates, both of which could ease economic demands on the places primates call home.

Though the researchers remain optimistic, they argue the threat we face must be confronted now. “We have one last opportunity to greatly reduce or even eliminate the human threats to primates and their habitats, to guide conservation efforts, and to raise worldwide awareness of their predicament,” they write. “Primates are critically important to humanity. After all, they are our closest living biological relatives.”