U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

NCBI Bookshelf. A service of the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.

Wilson EO, Peter FM, editors. Biodiversity. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1988.

Cover of Biodiversity


Show details

Chapter 16Primate Diversity and the Tropical Forest Case Studies from Brazil and Madagascar and the Importance of the Megadiversity Countries


Vice-President for Science, World Wildlife Fund/The Conservation Foundation, Washington, D.C.

Much of the early interest in wildlife conservation grew out of a desire to save some of the world's most spectacular mammals, and to some extent, these so-called charismatic megavertebrates are still the best vehicles for conveying the entire issue of conservation to the public. They are really our flagship species, both here in the United States and in the developing countries, and primates in particular are perhaps the best flagships for tropical forest conservation. Nonhuman primates are of particular interest in this context for three basic reason: they are of great importance to our own species; they are largely a tropical order, roughly 90% of all primate species being restricted to the tropical forest regions of Asia, Africa, and the Neotropics; and they are members of the elite group called the charismatic megavertebrates.

The threats to primates and their tropical forest habitats can be seen by examining two tropical forest regions: Brazil, particularly the Atlantic forest region of eastern Brazil, and the island of Madagascar. These are clearly two of the most important countries for primate conservation, and they are among the world's richest countries for living organisms in general—countries that I call the megadiversity countries and that are critical to the survival of the majority of the world's biological diversity.

Most people are aware of the importance of the Order Primates, which of course includes our own species, Homo sapiens. However, few realize how diverse the Order of Primates actually is, including as it does some 200 species that range from the tiny mouse lemur (Microcebus murinus) of Madagascar and the tarsiers (Tarsius spp.) of Southeast Asia to the great apes, which include our closest living relatives, the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) and the pygmy chimpanzee (Pan paniscus ). Our nonhuman primate relatives are valuable to us in many ways, and the rapid growth of the science of primatology over the past 25 years has reflected this. Studies of these animals have taught us a great deal about the intricacies of our own behavior, they have clarified questions about our evolution and our origins, and they have played a significant role in biomedical research. Furthermore, the importance of primates as key elements of the tropical forest (e.g., seed dispersers) is only starting to be understood.

Unfortunately, wild populations of most nonhuman primates are decreasing all over the world. Many spectacular species like the mountain gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei) from Rwanda, Uganda, and Zaire, the golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia) and the muriqui (Brachyteles arachnoides) from Brazil, and the indri (Indri indri) and the aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) from Madagascar are already endangered, and many others are headed in the same direction.

Without a doubt, the major cause of the decline of primate populations is destruction of their tropical forest habitat, which is occurring at a rate of some 10 to 20 million hectares per year (OTA, 1984), the latter figure being equivalent to a loss of an area the size of California every 2 years.

Another very important factor in the decline of these populations is hunting of primates, mainly as a source of food, but these animals are also hunted for their supposed medicinal value, for the ornamental value of their skins and other body parts, and for their use as bait for other animals, or to eliminate them from agricultural areas where they have become crop raiders. The effects of hunting vary greatly from region to region and from species to species, but hunting of primates as food is known to be a very serious threat in at least three parts of the world—the Amazonian region of South America, West Africa, and Central Africa. Many thousands of primates are killed every year in these regions for culinary purposes, and such overhunting has already resulted in the elimination of certain species from large areas of otherwise suitable forest habitat (e.g., the elimination of woolly monkeys and spider monkeys in Amazonia) (Mittermeier, 1987; Mittermeier et al., 1986).

Live trapping of primates, either for export or for local use, plays an important role as well. Live primates are used in biomedical research and testing, or they may be sold as pets or exhibits, both internationally and within their countries of origin. For the most part, this is a less important factor than habitat destruction or hunting, but for certain endangered and vulnerable species that happen to be in heavy demand, it can be quite serious. Species that have been hurt by the trade in live primates include the chimpanzee and the cotton-top tamarin (Saguinus oedipus), both of which were important biomedical research models, and the woolly monkeys (Lagothrix spp.), which were and still are very popular as pets for local people in Amazonia.

All these factors have combined to bring about a worldwide decline in primate populations. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), one out of every three of the world's 200 primate species is already in some danger and one in seven is highly endangered and could be extinct by the turn of the century or even sooner if something isn't done quickly. These are minimum estimates. Very often when specialists go into the field to investigate the status of poorly known species, they find it necessary to add to the endangered list.

To prevent the extinction of the world's nonhuman primates, the Primate Specialist Group of IUCN's Species Survival Commission put together a Global Strategy for Primate Conservation in 1977. This document (Mittermeier, 1977) was the first effort to take a worldwide view of primate conservation problems, and its purpose was to make the Primate Specialist Group's goal of maintaining the current diversity of the Order of Primates a reality. It placed dual emphasis on ensuring the survival of endangered species wherever they occur and on providing effective protection for large numbers of primates in areas of high primate diversity or abundance. This original Global Strategy, which is now out of date, is being updated by a series of new regional plans for Africa (Oates, 1986), Asia (Eudey, 1987), Madagascar, and the Neotropical region, which will guide primate conservation activities for the remainder of this decade.

To find the financial support for the activities identified in the original Global Strategy, the World Wildlife Fund established a special Primate Program in 1979. Since that time, the program has funded and helped implement more than 150 projects, large and small, in 31 different countries, and it continues to grow. In addition, the program produces a wide variety of educational materials and publishes Primate Conservation, the newsletter and journal of the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group, which is the major means of communication among the world's primate conservationists.

A number of other organizations have also helped to support projects identified by the Primate Specialist Group, among them the New York Zoological Society, the Wildlife Preservation Trust International, the African Wildlife Foundation, the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society, the Brookfield Zoo, and the Frankfurt Zoological Society, to name just a few. Although the combined efforts of the World Wildlife Fund Primate Program and the other organizations have achieved a great deal on behalf of primates over the past decade, it is clear that much more will have to be done over the next few years to ensure that all of the world's 200 primate species are still with us as we enter the next century.

Two tropical countries, Brazil and Madagascar, are particularly important in efforts to conserve primate diversity, since they alone are home to 40% of the world's living primate species. Brazil, with 357 million hectares of tropical forest, is by far the richest country in the world for this biome, containing more than three times more forest than the next country on the list, which is Indonesia, and 30% of all the tropical forest on our planet (Table 16-1). Not surprisingly, Brazil is also home to far more primates than any other country; its 53 species account for about 27%, or one in every four, primates in the world (Table 16-2).

TABLE 16-1. Countries of the World Containing the Largest Areas of Closed Tropical Forest.

TABLE 16-1

Countries of the World Containing the Largest Areas of Closed Tropical Forest.

TABLE 16-2. Countries of the World Containing the Greatest Primate Diversity.

TABLE 16-2

Countries of the World Containing the Greatest Primate Diversity.

Although one usually hears much more about Amazonia, the highest priority area within Brazil is its Atlantic forest region, which is the most developed and most devastated part of the country. The Atlantic forest is a unique series of ecosystems quite distinct from the much more extensive Amazonian forests to the northwest. At one time, it stretched pretty much continuously from the state of Rio Grande do Norte at the easternmost tip of South America out as far as Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state in Brazil, and it included some of the richest, tallest, and most beautiful forest on Earth. In its primeval state, the Atlantic forest complex covered over 1 million square kilometers in 14 states or about 12% of Brazil, and its length from north to south extended a greater distance than the entire Atlantic seaboard of the United States from northern Maine to the Florida Keys. However, this region was the first part of Brazil to be colonized, it has developed into the agricultural and industrial center of the country, and it has within its borders two of the three largest cities in all of South America—Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, which is now one of the largest cities on Earth.

The result has been large-scale forest destruction, especially in the last two decades of rapid economic development, to obtain lumber and charcoal and to make way for plantations, cattle pasture, and industry—to the point that only 1 to 5% of the original forest remains in this region. As might be expected, the animals and plants native to the Atlantic forest are not doing very well under such circumstances. Many of these are endemic (including 40% of all the small, non-volant, i.e., nonflying, mammals, 54% of the trees, and 64% of the palms), and increasing numbers are being added to the endangered species list. The best example is probably the effect on the primates, 80% of which are endemic to the Atlantic forest. Twenty-one species and subspecies of monkeys are found in this region, and the studies that have been carried out with World Wildlife Fund support since 1979 indicate that fully 14 of these are endangered and that several are literally on the verge of extinction. Of these 14 endangered species, 13 are found nowhere else in the world (Mittermeier et al., 1986).

Two of the Atlantic forest primate species stand out among the rest: the muriqui (Brachyteles arachnoides), which is the largest and most apelike of the South American monkeys, and the golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia), which is surely one of the most beautiful of all mammals. These animals are representatives of the two highly endangered genera that are endemic to the Atlantic forest, and they have been subjects of two major public awareness campaigns that have been under way for the past 5 years (Dietz, 1985; Mittermeier et al., 1985). They have really become the flagship species for the entire region, and the campaigns using them as symbols are excellent examples of the way in which key groups of animals can be used to sell the whole issue of conservation, both in the tropical countries and in the developed world.

The campaigns for the muriqui and the golden lion tamarin have been multi-faceted, including ecological research, survey work, development of museum exhibits, production of films, and distribution of a wide variety of educational and promotional materials, including posters, stickers, T-shirts, and various publications. The result is that these two species, which were virtually unknown to the general public in Brazil 5 years ago, are now so popular that they appear on the cover of phone books, on postage stamps, as themes of parades and theater presentations, and as subjects of numerous magazine and newspaper articles. All this, and of course a broad spectrum of some 50 other conservation projects being supported by the World Wildlife Fund in this region, has led to a general increase in conservation awareness, which we hope will be instrumental in helping to save what remains of the Atlantic forest and its spectacular fauna and flora.

The situation in Madagascar is even more critical than in the Atlantic forest region of eastern Brazil. Madagascar is a unique evolutionary experiment and a living laboratory that is unlike anyplace else on Earth. The island has been separated from the African mainland for perhaps as long as 200 million years, if in fact it was ever connected, and most of the plant and animal species from there have evolved in isolation and are unique to the island.

The most striking and conspicuous animals on Madagascar are the primates, which consist entirely of lemurs. Among these lemurs are some of the most unusual primates on Earth, ranging from the mouse lemur, which is the smallest living primate, to the indri, which is the largest living prosimian, and the aye-aye, which is the strangest of all primates and the only representative of an entire primate family, the Daubentoniidae.

This lemur radiation on Madagascar is one of the most diverse primate faunas anywhere, its 29 species placing it fourth on the world list of primate diversity behind Brazil, Zaire, and Indonesia (even though it is only 7% the size of Brazil, Table 16-2). When endemism is considered, Madagascar's primate fauna seems even more impressive, since 93% of all its species are restricted to that country—a figure not even approached by any other country (Table 16-3). Furthermore, the two lemur species found outside Madagascar reside only on the nearby Comoros Islands and are probably recent introductions by humans.

TABLE 16-3. Primate Endemism in the 15 Countries With the Greatest Primate Diversity.

TABLE 16-3

Primate Endemism in the 15 Countries With the Greatest Primate Diversity.

The situation is much the same for most other groups of organisms in Madagascar. Seven of the eight species of carnivores found there are endemic, as are 29 of the 30 tenrecs, 106 of the 250 birds, 233 of the 245 reptiles, 142 of the 144 frogs, 110 of the 112 species of palms, and 80% of its nearly 8,000 angiosperm plants. It is not just endemism that is impressive on Madagascar, however, but total diversity as well. Although Madagascar is only about 40% again as large as the state of California and accounts for less than 2% of the African region, its 8,000 angiosperm plants represent 25% of all angiosperms in Africa (P. Lowry, personal communication, 1987), it has more orchids than the entire African mainland, and its 13 living primate genera approach the 14 to 15 mainland genera in total diversity.

Unfortunately, most of Madagascar's spectacular fauna and flora is endangered, mainly, once again, because of forest destruction. Although human beings arrived on Madagascar only some 1,500 to 2,000 years ago, human activity has resulted in the loss of some 80% of Madagascar's forests, and the major remaining forest formations are being chipped away for firewood and charcoal and for slash-and-burn agriculture. Hunting is a problem as well, specially with the breakdown of local cultures, which formerly included many taboos against the hunting of primates and other wildlife.

Lest anyone believe that extinctions are a figment of the conservationist's imagination, he or she need only look at what has already been lost on Madagascar over the past 2,000 years. Among the species that have disappeared are the elephant birds (Aepyornis spp.), which were the largest birds that ever lived, a pygmy hippopotamus, an aardvark, and fully six genera of lemurs, representing one-third of all known Malagasy lemur species. Included among the species lost are animals like Megaladapis (Figure 16-1), which moved like a huge koala and grew to be as large as a female gorilla (Sussman et al., 1985).

FIGURE 16-1. Right: The extinct giant lemur Megaladapis from Madagascar, as reconstructed by Stephen D.


Right: The extinct giant lemur Megaladapis from Madagascar, as reconstructed by Stephen D. Nash. Left: An extinct ring-tailed lemur in madagascar

Almost all the species that have already disappeared were diurnal and larger than the surviving species. If this trend continues, the next in line would be the indri, which is the largest, and the sifakas (Propithecus spp.), which are next in size. In fact, several of these are already endangered. One, the black sifaka (Propithecus diadema perrieri) from northeastern Madagascar, is now down to only about 100 individuals and must be considered on the verge of extinction.

At present, about 40% of Malagasy lemurs are considered endangered and many more are likely to enter the endangered category as we learn more about them. And what is happening to lemurs is happening to the rest of Madagascar's fauna and flora as well.

Despite the many problems, there is cause for optimism in Madagascar. In November 1985, a special National Conservation Strategy Conference held there attracted representatives from many international organizations, including IUCN, the World Wildlife Fund, the United Nations Environment Program, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Bank, and a number of bilateral aid organizations, including the U.S. Agency for International Development. This conference generated a great deal of enthusiasm for conservation among the Malagasy themselves and should serve as an important take-off point for future conservation activities. Several projects supported by the World Wildlife Fund are also serving as models for community involvement in conservation, and are attracting international attention to the need for conservation in this all-important country. Of particular importance in this respect is the Beza-Mahafaly project in southwestern Madagascar, which is being conducted by researchers from the University of Madagascar, Yale University, Washington University, and the Missouri Botanical Garden (Sussman et al., 1985).

To be sure, a great deal still needs to be done in Madagascar to ensure that the country's amazing biological diversity is maintained for future generations. Nevertheless, the time appears to be ripe to accomplish something of major proportions there and in effect to change the course of conservation history in this unique country.

As indicated in Table 16-2, there is a very disproportionate distribution of primate diversity in the world. Just four countries, Brazil, Madagascar, Zaire, and Indonesia, by themselves account for approximately 75% of all the world's primate species. If we are going to maintain global primate diversity, we must pay special attention to these countries over the next few decades, not to the exclusion of others but certainly more than we have in the past.

Needless to say, these megadiversity countries are not just important for primates. Although we are still in the process of compiling data, it appears that approximately 50 to 80% of the world's total biological diversity will be found in some 6 to 12 tropical countries. The first 6 of these to have emerged from the preliminary analysis are Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Zaire, Madagascar, and Indonesia (see Figure 16-2). Not only do these countries have a major portion of the world's biological diversity, they have an even higher percentage of the world's diversity at risk—the very diversity that is in danger of disappearing over the next decade and that is of so much concern to conservation biologists. All these countries are undergoing rapid environmental change, are facing severe economic problems, and in general, lack the resources to develop the broad-based conservation programs needed to conserve biological diversity on their own. This means that people of the developed world are going to have to work in much closer collaboration with colleagues in these countries in the years to come and that the developed countries will have to provide far more resources for conservation than ever before.

FIGURE 16-2. Megadiversity countries identified by the World Wildlife Fund.


Megadiversity countries identified by the World Wildlife Fund.

I do not believe in a gloom-and-doom approach to conservation, which can be quite detrimental to our efforts. On a more upbeat note, I believe that much of our planet's biological diversity can be maintained and that conservation in general has to be considered the art of the possible. The example of Brazil, which may be the single most diverse country in the world, is most encouraging. One hears a great deal about destruction and the many environmental problems faced by Brazil but very little about the successes. Nonetheless, the successes are there, and for those of us who have been working in Brazil for two decades, the advances in conservation in that country seem little short of phenomenal. They lead me to believe that a very large proportion of Brazil's biological diversity can be maintained. With the proper input of resources from both the developed world and the developing countries themselves, there is no reason why these successes cannot be repeated on a global basis.


  • Dietz, L. A. 1985.Captive-born lion tamarins released into the wild: A report from the field. Primate Conserv. 6:21–27.
  • Eudey, A. A. 1987. Action Plan for Asian Primate Conservation. International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources/Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group, World Wildlife Fund, and United Nations Environment Programme, Washington, D.C. 70 pp.
  • Mittermeier, R. A. 1977. A Global Strategy for Primate Conservation. International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources/Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group, Cambridge, Mass. 325 pp.
  • Mittermeier, R. A. 1987. The effects of hunting on rain forest primates. Pp. 109–146 in C. Marsh, editor; and R. A. Mittermeier, editor. , eds. Primate Conservation in the Tropical Rain Forest. Alan R. Liss, New York.
  • Mittermeier, R. A., and J. F. Oates, 1985. Primate diversity: The world's top countries. Primate Conserv. 5:41–48.
  • Mittermeier, R. A., C. Valle, I. B. Santos, C. Alves, C. A. Machado Pinto, and A. F. Coimbra-Filho. 1985. Update on the muriqui. Primate Conserv. 5:28–30.
  • Mittermeier, R. A., J. F. Oates, A. A. Eudey, and J. Thornback. 1986. Primate conservation. Pp. 3–72 in G. Mitchell, editor; and J. Erwin, editor. , eds. Comparative Primate Biology, Vol. 2A, Behavior, Conservation and Ecology. Alan R. Liss, New York.
  • Oates, J. F. 1986. Action Plan for African Primate Conservation. International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources/Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group, World Wildlife Fund and United Nations Environment Programme, Washington, D.C. 41 pp.
  • OTA (Office of Technology Assessment). 1984. Technologies to Sustain Tropical Forest Resources. Congress of the United States, Office of Technology Assessment, Washington, D.C. 344 pp.
  • Sussman, R. W., A. F. Richard, and G. Ravelojaona. 1985. Madagascar: Current projects and problems in conservation. Primate Conserv. 5:53–59.
Copyright © 1988 by the National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK219287


  • PubReader
  • Print View
  • Cite this Page
  • PDF version of this title (13M)

Recent Activity

Your browsing activity is empty.

Activity recording is turned off.

Turn recording back on

See more...