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Extinction Crisis: Vanishing Primates

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The white-handed gibbon is endangered.

The white-handed gibbon is endangered.

There are 504 primate species ranging from gorillas to bushbabies, and lemurs to orangutans.

In September 2020, The Conversation reported that “more than 60 percent of primate species are threatened with extinction mainly due to human activities, such as habitat loss, hunting, illegal trade, climate change, and disease.”

Those threats include the expansion of agriculture, destruction of forests for logging and mining, and illegal hunting for food and the exotic pet trade. Climate change and emerging diseases will also have an additional negative impact on primates.

The BBC notes that “Poverty and civil unrest [are] driving forces for hunting—in the poorest parts of the world many people are being driven to hunting primates in order to feed themselves.”

Primates and Habitat Loss

Anthony Rylands is a senior research scientist with Conservation International and one of the 31 co-authors of a Science Advances report. He says that forests in Southeast Asia and in the Amazon are vanishing: “we’re seeing enormous areas destroyed, which you never saw 20 years ago.”

Other habitats are being degraded. Here are some numbers from the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation:

  • Around 50 percent of the world’s original forests have already gone and are being destroyed at a rate 10 times faster than they can re-grow.
  • Arctic sea ice could disappear within 70 years, and polar bears may become extinct.
  • Pollution, climate change and human impact are changing the shape and function of coastal land and causing sea temperatures and levels to rise and the water to become more acid. The world’s coral reefs and the species which they support are endangered.
  • Overgrazing and deforestation are causing deserts to spread. “The Sahara Desert is thought to be advancing southwards by about 5–10 kilometres per year.”

The National Wildlife Federation in the United States adds there are other ways in which habitats are destroyed: “. . . filling in wetlands, dredging rivers, mowing fields . . . dams and water diversions.”

In addition, “Pollutants such as untreated sewage, mining waste, acid rain, fertilizers, and pesticides concentrate in rivers, lakes, and wetlands and eventually end up in estuaries and the food web.”

Loss of habitat is the cause for nearly half the decline in primate species. Most of the blame for this falls on “unsustainable agriculture and logging and changes to freshwater systems.”

Species at Risk

Following are a few of the species at risk:

  • Lion-Tailed Macaque
  • Silky Sifaka
  • Eastern Lowland Gorilla
  • Javan Slow Loris
Lion-tailed macaque.

Lion-tailed macaque.

Lion-Tailed Macaque

Macaque monkeys are the most widespread primates after humans and most members of the genus are doing okay. However, the lion-tailed macaque is threatened. It has a narrow range in the Western Ghats Mountain range of southwest India (the Ghats are more rolling hills than snow-covered peaks).

This area is being aggressively logged and turned into agricultural land for palm oil, coffee, and tea. The logging means the fruits and nuts on which the lion-tailed macaque feeds have gone, and there may only be 4,000 individuals left.

Silky Sifaka.

Silky Sifaka.

Silky Sifaka

Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world and was once part of the Indian subcontinent. It split away about 88 million years ago allowing plants and animals to evolve in isolation so that 90 percent of Madagascar’s wildlife is found nowhere else.

The island is home to 72 kinds of lemurs prompting Conservation International to call them “Madagascar’s flagship mammal species.” The conservation group says “The lemurs of Madagascar vary widely, from the tiny Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur . . . which, at only 30 grams, is the world’s smallest primate, to the indri . . . which leaps from tree to tree similar to the airborne kangaroo.”

But, the tree leaping is coming to an end as the island has lost 80 to 90 percent of its forest cover, putting many species in trouble. The silky sifaka is on the 25 most endangered primates list and may be down to as few as 100 individuals.

Eastern lowland gorilla.

Eastern lowland gorilla.

Eastern Lowland Gorilla

There are four gorilla subspecies and, of these, the eastern lowland is the largest; a fully grown male can weigh up to 272 kilograms (600 pounds). The eastern lowland gorilla is a forest dweller in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. The civil unrest has led to poaching for meat even in the protected Kahuzi-Biega National Park.

The World Wildlife Fund says, “There were nearly 17,000 eastern lowland gorillas in the mid-1990s but scientists estimate that the population has declined by more than 50 percent since then.” The animals used to live in a range about the size of the state of Massachusetts but now occupy only about 13 percent of that area.

The DNA of gorillas is between 98 percent and 99 percent that same as that of humans.

Javan slow loris.

Javan slow loris.

Javan Slow Loris

Unique among primates, slow lorises have a venomous bite, but that doesn’t stop them from being in demand as exotic pets. The folk in the illegal pet trade often remove the animal’s front teeth, very likely without the benefit of anesthetic, and this can cause them to die from infection or malnutrition. But never mind—he'll make a really cute Christmas present for Mackenzie.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature notes “...the species has experienced a suspected decline of at least 80 percent over the last 24 years.”

As its name suggests, the Javan slow loris lives on the Indonesian island of Java and moves quite slowly, hand-over-hand, in tree branches. However, when lunch is in view it can move quickly to seize a small mammal, reptile, or insect. It also eats fruit, flowers, and birds eggs.

They are also vulnerable to habitat loss; Java only has 10 percent of its original forest left.


We in the developed world may tut-tut about species decline, but we play a role in the devastation. We exploit minerals and oil and gas in forest areas to feed our extravagant lifestyles. We buy products such as palm oil grown on land that used to be forested. Some of us buy endangered exotic pets. And we consume tropical hardwoods for our floors and furniture.

So do we have the right to criticize those in the developing world who:

  • Chop down trees to clear land on which to grow food and products we buy?
  • Capture wild animals for sale to earn a little cash in a place where there are no jobs?
  • Eat bush meat because they are hungry?

Bonus Factoids

  • The French deep thinker Rene Descartes theorized that the great apes were capable of talking but they chose not to avoid being put to work by humans.
  • Ninety-nine percent of all the species that have ever lived are now extinct.
  • The rainforest canopy is where half of all the species in the world live.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor