Not too many conservationists can claim being threatened by a drunk policeman armed with a machine
gun as a work experience. For primatologist Ben Rawson, little in his life – and that of his colleagues – is ordinary.
Rawson, 36, is among dozens of scientists on several continents who provided data for the first comprehensive review in five years of the world’s 634 kinds of primates. The results are staggering: almost 50 percent of all monkeys, lemurs, apes and other primates are in danger of becoming extinct. In the Asian region, where Rawson is the regional primatologist for CI’s Indo-Burma Program, more than 70 percent of primates are threatened. In Central and South America, 39 percent of the primates are in danger. Africa and Madagascar’s results were 37 and 41 percent, respectively.
The survey was done as part of an assessment of all mammals worldwide, which will be part of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
IN DEPTH: Explore the behaviors, habitats and physical characteristics of mandrills, lemurs, monkeys and more with our Interactive Primate Tree.
Field scientists who gather such data know how tough this kind of work can be. Rawson recalls his brush with a policeman involved in the illegal wildlife trade in Cambodia: "I was in the local village at night looking for guides to take to the field the next day," he says. "A guy rolled up on his motorbike and confronted us on the street. He started waving his machine gun around, with special emphasis on me."
In Southeast Asia, many ethnic groups have a culture of hunting wildlife. According to Rawson, this hadn’t been a problem until the proliferation of guns in the region from various conflicts. Today, hunting is a serious threat to many species.
Habitat destruction is another direct cause for loss of primates worldwide, particularly from burning and clearing forests. Not only does this destroy primate habitat, it also emits about 16 percent of global greenhouse gases fueling climate change. Rawson sees climate change as an indirect, yet genuine threat to primates. He cites a recent report that predicts a one-meter sea level rise that would affect six million people, mostly in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. "Massive numbers of people will be migrating into forested areas further north, and clearing those forests for agriculture," he points out.
Working for the past six years in Cambodia and Vietnam, where approximately 90 percent of the primates are at risk of extinction, Rawson has witnessed the crisis unfold.
"Pretty much every time you go to the field you can see the problem," he says. "You see it with the creeping clearance of forests for agriculture. You see it in the dismembered remains of wildlife in the markets."
LEARN MORE: There are several threats to primates. Read more about these threats and how we can protect our closest cousins.
Despite the challenges, Rawson is cautiously optimistic. "The discovery of a new population, the protection of a key area; these are the things that give you hope," he explains. "However, realistically, all species of primates in Cambodia and Vietnam are on a slippery slope with populations still declining, often at drastic rates."
One success Rawson cites is the discovery last year of the largest known population of the Critically Endangered grey-shanked douc langur (Pygathrix cinerea). Since the discovery, the area has been given protected area status.
Sometimes engaging local communities is a challenge. "Wildlife and forests are seen for the direct values they provide people," Rawson says. "We have to make explicit the unseen values, such as forests as watersheds and primates as seed dispersers. Then it makes sense to adopt alternatives to destructive practices."
CI works with local communities previously involved in the illegal wildlife and timber trade, providing training in agriculture and animal husbandry techniques to increase crop yields and reduce reliance of forest products. A local villager was recruited to collect behavioral and ecological information about the local primate populations.
"We all need to understand how our behavior impacts the world around us," Rawson says. Being a smart consumer can have a direct effect. For example, when you buy timber products such as outdoor furniture, be sure they are certified as legally harvested. That will reduce the amount of illegally harvested timber, which means a reduction in habitat loss for primates."
CHAT: Mammalogist Mike Hoffmann took time out to talk about monkeys, apes, lemurs and more primates.