Close Encounters with Brazil’s Little “Lions”

Conservationists — including CI's Russ Mittermeier, second from left — observe wild golden lion tamarins in Brazil's Poço das Antas Biological Reserve

Conservationists — including CI’s Russ Mittermeier, second from left — observe wild golden lion tamarins in Brazil’s Poço das Antas Biological Reserve. (© CI/photo by Kim McCabe)

It’s not every day that this urban office-dweller has her hat swatted by a wild, frisky, and Endangered primate from Brazil.

Most of my time with CI is spent at a computer or in meetings at our global headquarters near Washington, D.C., planning and executing communications strategies. But after the recent conclusion of the Rio+20 conference, I had the unexpected pleasure of traveling with CI President and renowned primatologist Dr. Russ Mittermeier and a few of our colleagues from CI-Brazil into the coastal Atlantic Forest region of Rio de Janeiro State to see some of our partners’ conservation activities in action.

Bending with a camera in hand to photograph a mesmerizing orange creature called the golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia) foraging through the leaves, its frisky playmate in the branch above me took a swing at my hat. But I got the easy end of these primates’ playful welcome to their Atlantic Forest home; Russ had the not so enviable experience of being targeted by a tamarin named Devra — named for late biologist Devra Kleiman — who wet his jacket with an unpleasant exclamation of nerves when he stood underneath her in the forest.

Despite this literal dampening, Russ, who began working with the species in 1971, seemed electrified to come so close to these rare animals in the wild — close enough to tweak the tail of one and hold a 20 Brazilian real note (about US$ 12) side by side with one of its real life likenesses (see video below). It’s easy to see where these monkeys got their names, with golden red fur that fans out like a lion’s mane from their tiny faces.

Lest you think that being within hat-swatting- and jacket-peeing distance to wild golden lion tamarins is a common experience for primatologists, I assure you it’s quite the opposite. Due to habitat fragmentation and deforestation, these squirrel-sized creatures saw their global population numbers plummet dangerously to fewer than 200 wild individuals in the 1970s. And the Atlantic Forest, which originally thrived at more than 1.2 million square kilometers (460,000 square miles) has shrunk to just 90,000 square kilometers (less than 35,000 square miles) today — just 7 or 8 percent of its original size, much of which has been fragmented by urbanization, mining, logging and agricultural development.

Among the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots, the Atlantic Forest is one of the most important conservation priorities in the world for its wealth of endemic species — found nowhere else on Earth — and ecosystem services. Even with just a fraction of the original forest cover remaining today, the forest contains more than 20,000 plant species, of which 8,000 are endemic, along with 850 bird species with an endemism rate above 22 percent. That’s science speak for saying: This place is special.

And thanks to the dedicated efforts of conservationists working in Brazil’s Poço das Antas Biological Reserve, and many partners supporting their efforts in the field and with fundraising, the golden lion tamarins are staging an encouraging comeback to the tune of nearly 1,600 individuals today.

A golden lion tamarin in Brazil's Poço das Antas Biological Reserve

A golden lion tamarin in Brazil’s Poço das Antas Biological Reserve. (© CI/photo by Kim McCabe)

During this energizing day trip, I learned that the Associação Mico-Leão-Dourado (Golden Lion Tamarin Association) — a Brazilian nonprofit which was founded in 1992 to protect the species in its natural habitat and conserve the Atlantic Forest ecosystem within the reserve — works with support from CI and others via the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund to provide scientists with an invaluable opportunity to observe and study their demography, behavior, genetics, diet and reproductive habits. Twenty years later, the Poço das Antas Biological Reserve and several private reserves also offer select visitors the extraordinary chance to see these charismatic and colorful species in the wild — the last wild and reintroduced populations left on Earth.

Program Director Luis Paulo Ferraz, who works with our Atlantic Forest team in Brazil, gave our group an educational presentation about the challenges of creating forest corridors, and offered us the chance to buy golden lion tamarin T-shirts and hats to support the project, which we did enthusiastically. He then escorted our group into the forest with the warning to take several bottles of water and insect repellant for the hike to their location. But almost immediately upon crossing the tree line from field into forest, we were greeted with the high pitched squeals and laser-quick movements of 12 beauties (at my last count) in two separate groves overhead and underfoot.

As we collectively marveled at the proximity and curiosity of these golden primates, Luis Paulo proudly explained that most of the researchers at the center have dedicated their time and talents to the project for more than 15 years and, as richly due, their field manager, Andréia Martins, was recently recognized by the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund as a “Disney Conservation Hero.”

Kim McCabe poses with a wild golden lion tamarin in Brazil's Atlantic Forest

Kim McCabe poses with a wild golden lion tamarin. (© CI/photo by Kim McCabe)

Luis Paulo also emphasized that in order to bring the population up from 1,600 today to their goal of at least 2,000 wild gold lion tamarins by 2025, “We need forest.” Conservation corridors, he added, are key to conserve and connect 25,000 hectares (62,000 acres) of forest — the minimum area needed for conservation of the species in perpetuity.

Like all conservation efforts around the world, the team’s work needs support to continue funding research, protection, and the collection of solid data about the values of connecting these fractured forests — not only for these little monkeys, but for people as well. The Atlantic Forest system provides environmental services such as fresh water supplies and erosion control, which support the Brazilian economy and quality of life for some 120 million people, or 70 percent of the country’s population!

So with a tamarin-swatted hat tip, I salute these conservation heroes and challenge you to join me in lending our support to bring this little king of the Rio forests back to their former glory for their benefit, and ours. Perhaps a twenty for the tamarins? In the U.S., you can do so via a gift to the Save the Golden Lion Tamarin charitable organization.

Kim McCabe is CI’s vice president of news + public relations.

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