Four years ago this summer, I was in Philadelphia covering the Republican National Convention for CNN. Four years later, I find myself in Turin, Italy covering the International Primatological Societys 20th Congress. Strictly speaking, Im no longer a full-blooded journalist. These days, Im now half-journalist, half "PR flack," and earn my keep getting media coverage for the issues important to CI.
Its day four of the Congress a Thursday night at 9pm and a group of primatologists has gathered in the centuries-old Academic Academy of Biology building. You might think these gatherings are tame affairs. I know I did. I was wrong.
In fact, like the 2000 GOP convention with its still simmering tensions between factions backing Senator McCain and then-Governor George W. Bush, some tensions have emerged here. But instead of debating the merits of the Straight Talk candidate versus the Texas Cowboy, the arguments here are between Perus yellow-tailed woolly monkey and Indonesias Sumatran orangutan.
For the third time in five years, more than 100 of the worlds top primatologists have gathered to select the 25 most threatened primates on the planet. Many of these scientists work in the field, and because they naturally favor the primates living in their region, they passionately argue for the inclusion of their favorite on the list. The species ultimately included receive significant international media attention, which often means that governments start paying more attention, and money for the groups trying to save them starts flowing in.
Tilo Nadler, the Frankfurt Zoological Societys man in Vietnam, says the inclusion of one of his favorite species on the 2002 list, Delacours langur, helped encourage the Vietnamese government to more strictly enforce laws to protect them.
First, the rules are announced. Although this is a list of 25 highly threatened primates, the organizers want to ensure that no one region or no one animal type (lemurs or monkeys, for example) dominate the list. Theyre looking for genuine diversity an ape here, a sifaka there. And priority will be given to primates not currently receiving a sufficient amount of attention from conservationists.
So the deal making begins. Ian Redmond of the Great Ape Survival Project speaks first, making the case to replace a current top 25 species, the Critically Endangered mountain gorilla, with a different species, the eastern lowland gorilla
Another scientist makes a plea to include a loris from Sri Lanka. Another seconds the recommendation, while a third commandeers the microphone to push for her own favorite species. Yet a fourth talks about how politically helpful it would be to have her primate on the list. A young scientist from El Salvador presses her case for a local monkey, despite her self-professed terror at speaking broken English to such a prestigious crowd.
An hour has passed, and the attendees remain actively engaged some shaking their heads, saying, They should have included the other
colobus, and others nodding in enthusiastic agreement. One final speaker decides to provoke passions by arguing for the removal of the beloved orangutan from the list. The orangutan lovers come to its defense, ensuring its continued presence.
The meeting wraps up almost two hours after it began with a new top 25 list in hand. The species that made the cut dont know cant know how lucky they are. But suddenly a brighter spotlight is about to be shined on the matter of their very survival.
Their chances just got a little better.