This post is from ScIU’s archives. It was originally published by Chloe Holden in September 2019 and has been lightly edited to reflect current events.
This is the second installment of the Primate Conservation Series. You can read Part 1 here.
Over the past few years, the iconic video below has become the face of orangutan conservation efforts: a young male orangutan confronting a bulldozer as it destroys the forest around him. Orangutan populations once stretched from the islands of Indonesia through Vietnam and into the south Asian continent. Fossils of orangutan ancestors have even been found all the way up into northern India! Today, wild orangutans can only be found in Sumatra and Borneo, two islands in Indonesia. Their habitats have been significantly destroyed, largely in the past 75 years, due to illegal logging and deforestation to make room for palm oil plantations, as well as other agricultural crops. Habitat destruction can have profound environmental impacts because primates all over the globe play a significant role in maintaining the health of many of the world’s forests, doing their own part in combating the effects of climate change.
It’s hard for many to fully understand the impact of extinction on animals and their surrounding environment; animals that we rely on for food and company are artificially bred to maintain their populations. Animals in zoos and sanctuaries are already rare and foreign to most, so the idea that there are only a few in the wild holds consistent with how we interact with them when visiting zoos or other conservation parks. However, primates play a more important role in their natural ecosystems than they do in captivity and even in research. There are three major areas where primate conservation is of utmost importance: Asia, South America, and Africa.
In South America, deforestation of the Amazon rainforest to make room for cattle farming, logging, and agriculture threatens over 100 primate species. The Amazon has one of the most diverse animal populations in the world, where primates compete with other animals for resources. A decrease in primates within one of these territories would allow for another mammal species to become dominant. Similarly, primates provide diversity in the prey species available for local predators. Diversity in prey means that a predator does not become increasingly reliant on a single species for its own survival. A loss of primates could drive predators to become more reliant on fewer species of prey, which could destabilize prey-predator relationships and increase the probability of extinction. A great example of this is the extinction of Ice Age megafauna. In areas where human territories overlapped with low diversity in prey species, human hunting assisted in the extinction of animals such as the steppe bison and woolly mammoths.
Unfortunately, a significant reduction in territory is common across primate species . In Guinea, for example, mining and plans for a hydroelectric dam threaten western chimpanzees. Although the establishment of Moyen-Bafing National Park was meant to reduce the risk of these activities to chimpanzees and many other animals in the area, the mine and the production of the dam will likely kill about half of the park’s chimpanzee population through habitat destruction. Logging and the development of agricultural plots in central Africa threaten chimpanzees and gorillas due to a partial overlap of their habitats. As the largest primates, gorillas are often targeted by poachers as trophies. Similarly, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, gorillas and bonobos (the sister species of chimpanzees) overlap, and both are threatened not just by deforestation and the bushmeat trade , but also by civil unrest and its consequences. Although Salonga National Park is supposed to be protected land where many bonobos live, civil war means that poachers are left unchecked and can hunt what they please.
The displacement and reduction of natural primate populations is so detrimental to our ecosystems because many primates act as nature’s grounds keepers. Between their movements, dietary preferences, and even their varying fur or hair patterns, primates across the globe play a key role in pollinating and maintaining their ecosystems. As chimpanzees consume their favorite fruits, the seeds make their way through their digestive tracts and drop out the other end. This method of seed dispersal helps promote diversity in forest vegetation, since their favorite fruiting trees are spread throughout the forest. Naturally, gorillas and bonobos prefer to snack on new sprouting leaves and shoots of some plants, but occasionally, they will eat the mature stems of other species. In this way, they are grooming their forest habitats, which maintains plant health and ensures that vegetation doesn’t get too overgrown in any one part of their territory.
If the world was a living organism, the Amazon and all the forests of the world would act as lungs. They breathe in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen that sustains all the species on Earth. Thus, all of the roles that primates play in their local community serve a larger purpose on a global scale: maintenance of the forests promotes global vegetation and organism health.
At this point, you may be wondering “What can I do?” Check out Part 3 of the Primate Conservation Series: 7 tips on how you can help the environment!
 In some areas, humans have spread so far into wildlife territory that the wildlife have started invading their cities. In Southeast Asia, macaques rule the roost. Stories of monkeys stealing cameras, sun glasses, and hats are common among tourists, and videos of macaques stealing bags of chips and other easy food items are all over the internet. In some places, it’s gotten so bad that locals have attempted to provide birth control to the females. While in Kathmandu, I couldn’t go 10 feet without running into a macaque!
 The bushmeat market also contributes to primates found in the exotic pet trade. When poachers kill mothers with infants, the mother is sold for meat, while the infant, which is not big enough to provide very much meat, is sold into the pet trade. It is illegal to trade wildlife in the United States; yet, even with strict laws on the trade of primates, many animal sanctuaries continue to rescue primates from private homes that can no longer properly care for their “pet.” Many people turn to capturing and selling primates in animal markets because it seems like it’s their only option for income.
Edited by Alex Moussa-Tooks and Ben Greulich