The Archetypal Flagship Adrift


Cowlishaw, G. & R. Dunbar Primate Conservation Biology. . 2000 . University of Chicago Press , Chicago . 498 pp. $75.00 (hardcover). ISBN 0-226-11636-0 . $27.00 (paperback). ISBN 0-226-11637-9.

Primate Communities. Fleagle, J. G., C. Janson, and K. E. Reed, editors. 1999. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom. 329 pp. $75.00 (hardcover). ISBN 0-521-62044-9. $30.00 ( paperback). ISBN 0-521-62967-5.

Walker's Primates of the World. Nowak, R. M. 1999. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland. 224 pp. $20.00 (paperback). ISBN 0-8018-6251-5.

The future of our relatives, the nonhuman primates, is not promising. There are about 300 species left (642 taxa including subspecies), but 116 species are recognized as threatened by the World Conservation Union ( Since 1996 the number of critically endangered species rose from 13 to 19 and the number of endangered from 29 to 46. In the last millennium, we lost 15 species of lemurs and the Jamaican monkey; last year Miss Waldron's red colobus was declared extinct. More taxa would have disappeared were it not for heroic efforts, pure chance, and time lags. Faunal collapse following recent forest clearance is inevitable, and even forests that are not yet destroyed are strangely silent over vast areas of west Africa and southeast Asia. Even a common species, the rhesus macaque in India, has experienced a 90% decline in numbers in the last 30 years (an event reminiscent of the bison and passenger pigeon). The World Conservation Union Primate Specialist Group (  PSG) recently identified 25 species as most endangered (9 with populations of <400 individuals), and Time publicized their plight in a four-page feature under the headline “Death Row” (Alexander 2000). Hunting and habitat alteration are the major threats, and these agents of extinction will worsen during the next 200 years. Slow rates of growth and reproduction, long interbirth intervals, small litters, slow development, and extended life spans all contribute to the vulnerability of endangered primates.

Human valuation of the other primates is such that they are flagship species for the conservation of all biodiversity. Therefore, the publication of the first comprehensive book on primate conservation biology will interest all readers of this journal. Cowlishaw and Dunbar's valuable contribution begins with a detailed overview of primate diversity, life history, ecology, and behavior and the way these factors influence abundance, distribution, population biology and dynamics, social groupings, and reproductive patterns. They then discuss extinction processes, population viability analysis, and risk assessment, with an emphasis on habitat disturbance and hunting. They conclude by reviewing conservation strategies and management practices highlighting key issues that must be addressed to protect primates for the future.

How can we justify the disproportionate attention afforded to primates? Cowlishaw and Dunbar review their ecological, economic, cultural, and ethical valuation. Topics considered include the ecological services provided by some primates in the pollination and seed dispersal of tropical trees, their importance as a food source in both traditional societies and in the African bush meat market, their sacred status in some cultures, and their position as crop-raiding pests in others. The primate's role in science, education, and medicine will interest readers, for although the international trade in live animals for pets, zoos, circuses, and medicine has largely dried up, thousands of wild-caught macaques, vervet and squirrel monkeys, and olive baboons are still imported annually by the United States, Japan, United Kingdom, France, and The Netherlands, in order of decreasing numbers. The authors argue that as flagship species, primates are a good focus for the conservation of threatened habitats and lament that “if we lose these animals, our ability to raise support for future conservation activities may suffer.”

The book is an outstanding compendium of well-synthesized primatological details drawn from over 1100 references, most published since 1990. These details are critical to effective conservation of individual species and also have great generality. The principles of conservation science are well illustrated by primates. Although Cowlishaw and Dunbar favor African examples and rely heavily on Caughley and Gunn's (1996) opinions, this will make an excellent text in both primatology and general conservation classes and a valuable addition to any conservation biologist's reference library.

For example, the effects of habitat fragmentation are clearly presented. Small-population problems, survival in fragments, survival in the landscape matrix, tolerance to shifting cultivation, selective logging, edge effects, and changed fire regimes all are described with primate examples. Small-population problems include sex-ratio shifts, loss of heterozygosity, loss of allelic diversity, disruption of social structure, and curtailment of dispersal and gene flow. Genetic erosion is obviously the next big problem to be added to the conservationist's list of things to worry about; its occurrence is undeniable but its significance is still debated. Yet the loss of innate genetic variability adds to populations' risk of extinction and retards their ability to evolve during this period of rapid environmental change (  Woodruff 2001).

The concluding chapters on conservation strategies and setting taxonomic and regional priorities will be of broad interest. The assessment of risk using population viability analysis (PVA) with “worked” primate examples is useful. The critical discussion of land preservation versus community-based conservation (CBC or Integrated Conservation and Development Projects, ICDP) in different social and political circumstances is timely, and successful projects aimed at primates in Belize and Madagascar are described. The time frame required for such conservation activities underscores the inadequacy of most individual efforts (  lasting 5-10 years) and underscores the power of consortium efforts like those fostered by the PSG and Conservation Breeding Specialist Group (  World Conservation Union/CBSG) and Conservation International.

The authors describe the many different conservation strategies available to primatologists including protected-area management, translocation, captive breeding, reintroduction, research, education, and ecotourism. They discuss cases of both positive and negative effects of primate-based tourism. With every strategy it is clear that primate conservation is in its infancy; far too few experiments have been conducted to argue that we know enough about what we are doing that we can assure the future of a specific taxon. Only a dozen translocation “experiments,” beginning with Strum's successful movement of an intact social group of baboons, have been documented and assessed to the extent possible. Essential “rehabilitation” and well-intended orphanage projects are reviewed, but their effect on conservation is still marginal and their costs in time, talent, and money enormous. The authors do not tackle the lamentable fact that although large sums of money have been raised by animal protectionists' use of appealing monkeys' faces, we still have little to show for the public's benevolence.

I found the discussion of captive breeding well balanced because this strategy has been criticized prominently and was only recently embraced by the PSG. Opponents have argued that it is preferable to identify the agents of extinction and bring them under control, a reasonable principle but one of limited operational utility in many places. So while we bickered over the last 15 years, many populations were extirpated, and we now face the more difficult tasks presented by ever smaller surviving populations. The World Conservation Union now recommends captive breeding for 45% of all primate subspecies, but our institutional resources are completely unequal to this challenge. Furthermore, the management of primates in captivity is still in its infancy (  Benirschke 1986; Wallis 1997  )—especially for folivores—and behavioral and genetic changes in small captive populations may frustrate reintroduction, the major justification of this expensive endeavor. In fact, the authors find that no completely successful reintroduction has yet been performed.

Cowlishaw and Dunbar show that primate conservation depends on a mix of protected areas, sustainable use, and community-based conservation and on captive breeding and translocation. The mix will be site-specific, depending on land ownership, socioeconomics, and political stability, and the best plans fall apart when a new group of humans immigrate into or take control of an area. The authors argue that international debt relief would reduce the pressure on the remaining forests and buy time for the development of tools required for the intensive management of fragmented populations, for the determination of limits of sustainable harvesting, and for the provision of alternative sources of meat. They favor concentrating efforts on the megadiversity countries: Brazil ( >80 species), Democratic Republic of Congo (37  ), Madagascar (37  ), Indonesia (36), Peru, Columbia, Cameroon, and Nigeria. Furthermore, it is worth remembering that effective protection and management of 1% of the Earth's land surface could conserve 85% of primate taxa. Colinshaw and Dunbar do not explicitly mention the benefits that sometimes follow from the simple presence of biologists at a site. If these benefits were verifiable, can you imagine the collective effect if each academic reader of this journal, once during their careers, placed one student in a range state for just a couple of years?

We need action, and we need better science, if we are to ensure the future evolution of our relatives. Even the few long-term studies available do not provide all the data required for a reliable PVA. We need more studies of behavioral ecology while these are still possible so that we may manage the increasing numbers of “basket cases” intelligently. A careful reading of this book may suggest to historians of science that women are actually doing the on-the-ground conservation and men are writing about it. There are of course exceptions to this troublesome generalization, but it is clear that the best conservation comes from individuals who know their animals well, having generally published extensive fundamental studies before practicing applied science. The implications for the effective training of conservationists deserve more attention.

Although the behavior and ecology of primates (populations and species) have been more thoroughly studied than those of any other order of mammals, the second volume I reviewed is perhaps the first to compare the multispecies communities of primates worldwide. Fleagle and 20 colleagues examine the factors underlying the similarity and differences between primate communities in four regions: Africa, Madagascar, Asia, and South America. This volume of well-integrated papers, based on a 1996 Wenner-Gren-University of Wisconsin workshop, provides an important resource for anthropologists, ecologists, and conservation biologists. The authoritative contributions contain much new information and will interest readers of this journal because every chapter has implications for conservation and six chapters discuss conservation explicitly.

Emmons notes that primates are the only order of mammals in tropical forests for which we have reliable, globally comparable data on species richness. In Africa (up to 16 species at some sites), Madagascar (≤16 until recently), and South America (≤16), but not Asia (≤10), primate diversity is a good predictor of the richness of other nonvolant mammal groups. Thus, in such areas conservationists would do well to focus on the most diverse primate communities. The reason for Asia's comparatively low α-diversity is not clear, but phylogeny, biogeographic history, lower reliability of fruit availability, and greater competition from carnivores and rodents have been implicated. Three chapters focus on the interactions between humans and other primates over the last few millennia in Gabon ( Tutin and White), Amazonia (   Peres), and across Africa (Struhsaker). Struhsaker documents numerous cases of extirpation in the last 100 years and asks whether the observed differences in primate communities today are due to historical interactions with humans. Wright and Jernvall take this further and conclude that Madagascar today may be a window to what the other regions will be like tomorrow. By 2100 they expect most large-bodied primate species will have disappeared from the wild and that the order will be represented by the likes of rhesus macaques, baboons, bushbabies, Hanuman langurs, red howler monkeys, brown capuchins, and mouse lemurs. The effect of the loss of the other species on forest ecosystem functions is unknown. Although counting primates won't save them, knowing more about the natural history of individual species and the ecological determinants of community diversity may permit better management of those that survive the human population explosion.

Finally, the third book I reviewed provides conservation biologists with an overview of the diversity of living primates. For each genus the physical characteristics, number, and distribution of species, habitats, behavior, population dynamics, social life, and reproduction are briefly described. The main 150-page text was originally published in Nowack's two-volume Walker's Mammals of the World (6th edition 1999). Bundled with this reissue is a 52-page introduction by noted primate conservationists Mittermeier, Rylands, and Konstant. This is a useful review that covers such topics as taxonomic diversity, natural history, and conservation. The latter discussion focuses on the impact of the 1978 Global Strategy edited by Mittermeier for the World Conservation Union/PSG, the subsequent four regional action plans, an action plan for endangered taxa due in 2001, and the numerous primate conservation and local newsletters, including a special issue of Primate Conservation (1998; volume 17, a retrospective and a look into the twenty-first century). The contributions of individual scientists to saving their own study populations and the work of other organizations also should be noted, especially the numerous single-species population and habitat viability analyses and conservation assessment management plans conducted in range countries under the auspices of the CBSG. In addition, the efforts of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Zoological Society of San Diego, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, and Conservation International have been significant. Although these organizations have sometimes worked at cross purposes in the past, the effect of their increasingly collaborative efforts is abundantly clear.

The black-and-white photographs in this book show almost all species for which pictures exist, but too many of the photos in the main text are taken from the first (1960) edition of this reference book and are now frankly outdated. They depict animals in cages with backgrounds of bars and chain-link fences or staged on tree stumps so that it is not at all clear that the animal is not a museum mount. These are now a disservice to conservation and the art of wildlife illustration; for a superior visual tour of the living primate taxa the reader is referred to Rowe (1996). For the record, some of the photographs credited to the Zoological Society of San Diego are misleading. The zoo has not exhibited gorillas on concrete for over 20 years and has not held the common (  but increasingly rare) chimpanzee for over 30 years in favor of maintaining the world's most successful breeding colony of the less well known and more threatened bonobo.

Is it true that primate conservationists have actually saved some of their favorite species? Absolutely! Cowlishaw and Dunbar provide ample evidence that science and scientists have had an effect. More important, their analysis identifies numerous opportunities for the next generation of students to do both great fundamental and successful applied science. Another bit of encouraging news is that the number of species of primates has actually increased in the last 100 years, from 180 in the first edition of Walker's Mammals to> 300 in Primate Taxonomy for the New Millennium (  PSG/Disney Institute). About 20 new species have been recognized in the last decade and, because most of the over 600 taxa of primates have never been characterized genetically, it is to be expected that additional cryptic species will be discovered, even in well-known groups such as the great apes. For most nonprimatologists the most significant changes include agreement that there are two species of gorillas and of orangutans. There is hope that, as we get to know our closest living relatives better, we will be able to conserve their dwindling populations more effectively. These books facilitate the necessary professional response.