1. Widespread hunting throughout Amazonia threatens the persistence of large primates and other vertebrates. Most studies have used models of limited validity and restricted spatial and temporal scales to assess the sustainability.
2. We use human-demographic, game-harvest and game-census data to parameterize a spatially explicit hunting model. We explore how population growth and spread, hunting technology and effort, and source–sink dynamics impact the density of black spider monkeys Ateles chamek over time and space in the rainforests of south-eastern Peru.
3. In all scenarios, spider monkey populations, which are vulnerable to hunting, persist in high numbers in much of Manu National Park over the next 50 years. Nonetheless, shotguns cause much more depletion than traditional bow hunting by Matsigenka (Machiguenga) indigenous people.
4. Maintenance of the current indigenous lifestyle (dispersed settlements, bow hunting) is unlikely to deplete spider monkeys and, by extension, other fauna, despite rapid human population growth. This helps explain why large, pre-Colombian human populations did not drive large primates to extinction. When guns are used, however, spider monkeys quickly become depleted around even small settlements, with depletion eventually reversing the short-term harvest advantage provided by shotgun hunting. Thus, our models show that when guns are used, limits on settlement numbers can reduce total depletion.
5. Synthesis and applications. Our framework lets us visualize the future effects of hunting, population growth, hunting technology and settlement spread in tropical forests. In Manu Park, the continued prohibition of firearms is important for ensuring long-term hunting sustainability. A complementary policy is to negotiate limits on new settlements in return for development aid in existing settlements. The advantage of the latter approach is that settlement numbers are more easily monitored than is hunting effort or technology. Similar policies could help to reduce landscape-scale depletion of prey species in human-occupied reserves and protected areas throughout the Amazon.