Global consumer demands fuel the extinction crisis facing the world’s primates

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Throughout the tropics, large tracts of forest have been converted to monocultures by industrial agriculture and degraded by the extraction of fossil fuels, metals, minerals, and other natural resources. This has resulted in significant declines in biodiversity.

A recent report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) indicates that one million animal and plant species worldwide are now threatened with extinction. Ecosystem damage and the extremes of global climate change have been most severe in tropical regions. Global Forest Watch reports that approximately 180 million hectares of tropical forest, an area roughly equivalent to the combined size of Spain, France, Germany, and the UK, was lost between 2001 and 2017. This has resulted in significant declines in wildlife populations, a reduction in animal and plant genetic diversity, the isolation of subpopulations, a decreased capacity for carbon sequestration, and local extinctions.

Here, we discuss how the global trade in forest-risk commodities has severely harmed tropical ecosystem health, the survival of nonhuman primates (our closest living biological relatives: prosimians, tarsiers, monkeys, and apes), and people living in tropical communities.

Primates represent the third most species-rich mammalian radiation after bats and rodents. There are some 512 species of nonhuman primates distributed in 91 countries, principally in the tropical and subtropical forests of Latin America, mainland Africa, Madagascar, south Asia and southeast Asia.

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These primates provide important community-wide ecological functions and services (e.g. seed dispersal, pollination, predator-prey relationships) that also benefit local human populations. In short, primates are an essential component of tropical biodiversity, and contribute to forest regeneration and ecosystem health. Primates also play important roles in the livelihoods, cultures, and religions of many societies and offer unique insights into human evolution, biology, behavior, and the threat of emerging diseases.

Alarmingly, the IUCN Red List reports that some 60% of primate species (more than 300) are now threatened with extinction and roughly 75% have declining populations due to human activities such as widespread deforestation of primate habitats for industrial agriculture and the extraction of hardwoods. Moreover, the intrusion of humans into frontier forests via expanding systems of roads, rail, and infrastructure has increased bushmeat hunting and the illegal trade of primates as pets and primate body parts, along with the introduction of human and domestic animal-borne transmitted diseases such as respiratory diseases and HIV/AIDS. These pressures act in synergy, along with other drivers of deforestation and environmental degradation, exacerbating primate population declines.

Global Consumer Demands
The primary catalyst driving nonhuman primate population decline is large-scale habitat loss. We live in an increasingly interconnected world where goods purchased by a small set of over-consuming nations are produced in poorer countries for export via networks of international trade. The production of forest-risk commodities such as soybeans, palm oil, natural rubber, and beef, and the extraction of forest products, metals, minerals, fossil fuels, and gemstones have permanently converted large tracts of natural forest into altered and degraded landscapes.

In primate-habitat countries, agriculture-driven land-use changes since 2000 have caused over 70% of tropical deforestation, contributing to approximately one quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. In 2016, exports of forest risk commodities from primate habitat countries totaled $1.1 trillion, with the U.S., China, India, Japan, and EU countries accounting for approximately 80% of all imports. Thus, a small number of consumer nations have a disproportionately large contribution to climate change, conversion and pollution of natural habitats, and primate population decline.

Examples of the expanding environmental footprint of Forest-Risk commodities
Palm oil is used in a large range of processed foods, cosmetics, detergents, and many industrial applications; it is also used for biofuels. The world will need to convert an additional 7 million ha of forested land in the tropics to oil palm in the next few years to meet projected consumer demands. The construction of new road networks and the expansion of palm oil production in forested regions of Indonesia are expected to decimate the last remaining populations of the world’s Critically Endangered orangutan species (Bornean orangutan, Sumatran orangutan, and Tapanuli orangutan).

Similarly, an additional 8 million ha of rubber plantations will be required to meet world demand by 2024. Currently 70% of the global consumption of rubber is used for tires. Expansion of rubber plantations in Yunnan and Hainan Provinces in China has contributed to the near extinction of the endemic Hainan gibbon (less than 30 individuals remaining in the wild), Skywalker gibbon(less than 200 individuals remaining in the wild), and several species of leaf monkeys. By the year 2050, the global demand for palm oil and natural rubber in Africa could lead to over 400 Mha of cumulative habitat loss and severe population declines and local extinctions for more than 40 primate species (including chimpanzees and gorillas).

Gorillas have lost habitat for charcoal and timber production as well as mining in Central Africa. Photo for by Rhett A. Butler.
Global market demands for beef, particularly in countries such as Brazil and Argentina, have caused extensive losses in primate habitats and in high levels of GHG emissions. of Chatham House indicates a similar growth trend in the extraction of nonagricultural commodities such as forest products, fossil fuels, metals, minerals, and gemstones. Global demand for oil and natural gas is expected to grow between 30% to 53% by 2035, severely damaging primate-rich areas such as the Amazon, Malaysia, and Borneo. Oil and gas concessions in the western Brazilian Amazon and in forested areas of Colombia, Ecuador, Perú, and Bolivia, already cover close to 1 million square kilometers.

In many cases, these potential energy fields overlap with protected areas, primate distributions, and the territories of indigenous peoples, threatening their livelihood and existence. Similarly, global demand for conflict minerals (e.g. tantalum) and gemstones (e.g., diamonds) also is expanding, causing primate habitat loss and degradation, and in some cases, civil conflict. The resulting political instability has often led to corruption and land grabbing by national and multinational corporations and the displacement of indigenous peoples.

The growing demand for forest-risk commodities from primate range regions is increasingly met by global supply chains controlled by a few international corporations rather than by local producers. Most of these corporations are based in the global north and control the world’s production, extraction, supply, and trade of agricultural and nonagricultural commodities from the tropics. Many of these corporations are closely affiliated with the fertilizer and pesticide markets and therefore have an obvious vested interest in promoting these products and the expansion of industrial agriculture. Many agrochemicals pollute the soil and both surface and underground water sources, significantly harming human health as well as the tropical insect biodiversity necessary for sustainable agriculture and forest regeneration.

Given regional differences in income equality, primate range countries continue to lag far behind importer nations in food security and economic well-being. Global trade and commodity-driven land-use have done little to generate wealth and well-being for citizens of primate habitat countries, while placing native biodiversity and primate fauna at risk of extinction. Decreasing the world’s per capita demand for food and nonfood products from primate range regions is critical to alleviate pressures on primate habitats. The towering task here is how to reduce the addiction of a small number of nations, most notably the US, China, India, Japan, and the EU, to commodities from the tropics and to convince consumers and multinational corporations to reduce their unsustainable and highly destructive environmental impacts on primate range countries.

Black crested macaques have lost habitat in Sulawesi to oil palm and coconut plantations as well as rice cultivation. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Primates are like the canary in the coal mine. If we continue to harm, pollute, degrade, and over-exploit natural environments such that prosimians, tarsiers, monkeys, and apes cannot survive, then in the not too distant future, humans will not be able to survive in these places, either. A sustained global resolve is urgently needed to reverse the unsustainable demands of a few consumer nations for forest-risk commodities, causing destruction of tropical ecosystems and poverty, poor health conditions, and food insecurity in local human communities.

This is the greatest crisis both human and nonhuman primates have ever faced. The time to act is now.